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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Stars of the Bosque

The star attraction at Bosque del Apache NWR is, of course, the Sandhill Cranes that winter there. They even have a namesake birding festival there the week before Thanksgiving each year. I've shot gazillions of crane pics all over the place but I still can't help but shoot a gazillion more (well, this time 1500 or so) every time I find another photo opp. I've seen and enjoyed the crane show along the Platte River in Nebraska, which is breathtaking in its scale and something I'd suggest to any nature lover. But for getting close, detailed crane shots I think the Bosque is tops. The cranes in Nebraska are hesitant to flyover low, wary as they are hunted along their flyways on the Eastern Plains. A limited number of blinds at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary are available to get close but you've got to commit to spending the whole night in one. The Bosque cranes, however, are pretty tame and often fly so close they won't fit the frame. Their feeding behaviors are easily observed and their night roosts are close to the road and have great morning and evening light.

Pre-sunrise Departures

Most of the cranes this far west are greater Sandhill Cranes, but there are lesser Sandhills mixed in. Not only smaller overall, lesser Sandhill Cranes have stubbier proportions with shorter-looking bills and necks. For some reason their cheeks look puffy to me- I think the shorter neck and bill contribute to this effect.

Lesser Sandhill Crane

Greater Sandhill Crane

Greater (trailing) & Lesser (leading) Sandhill Cranes departing at sunrise.

The cranes roost in shallow ponds created for this purpose. Two of the most popular among photographers lie along the entrance road, with levees along the east side allowing good access and tripod placement. If you ever want to see a lot of long lenses in one place this is it. Many are here on their own but it is also a popular workshop destination and you will frequently see groups shooting together under the tutelage of an instructor. Once the cranes have departed in the morning it is a good opportunity to compare notes on equipment and technique, and to swap scouting reports from other nearby areas.

Looking "down" the dike

Looking "up" the dike

I rarely shoot off a tripod but in cases like this where I shoot from the same place over a long time it really helps to reduce fatigue and to pan on flying birds. In the foreground below you can see my rig (Nikon D300 with Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 G-AFS ED-IF VR ) on Gitzo GT3541L sticks and a Wimberly gimbal head. The gimbal head allows for perfectly balancing the camera so it stays wherever you point it and tracks flying birds effortlessly. I've got Lens Coat lens and tripod wraps and the wire you see on top of the camera body goes to a Nikon GP-1 GPS unit mounted on the hot shoe, which geo-tags my pics. Most importantly, note the stainless-steel insulated coffee mug on the ground, full of weak hotel coffee punched up with a spoonful of Medaglia D'Oro Instant Espresso.

The shallow water of the roost pools gives cranes security against coyote sneak attacks. On cold mornings, however, thin ice forms and sometimes the cranes have to break themselves out. I've seen them occasionally fly off with rings of ice on their legs. This year after a chilly night in the upper teens I observed several cranes tucking their legs up in under their bodies as they departed, perhaps to help thaw off the ice. I only saw this behavior in the morning flight, and it gave them a quite odd legless look with a silhouette more goose or swan-like.

Amazing legless cranes!

For a few golden minutes after the sun rises there is amazing light for snapping flying cranes as they depart.

Then at sunset, the process reverses itself as cranes return to their secure roost. Again there is magic light with interesting contrasts and warm tones for a few minutes as the sun dips, accompanied by nearly the constant resonant trumpeting of the cranes.

Post-sunset photography often switches to silhouettes against desert sky pastels and reflections. Another day at the Bosque done, back to the hotel to offload pics and review the day's shoots.


Connie said...

Heavy sigh of contentment. Lovely birds, lovely photos.

Tom Wilberding said...

Great shots per usual. Thanks for the explanation & pics of Lesser Sandhill Cranes, very clear. How about those morning Snow Geese blast-offs? You gotta love Bosque del Apache!