Dancing Sandhill Cranes

WATCH VIDEO: Listen to Sandhill Crane Calls

They were everywhere. A thousand tall, red-headed cranes pecking at the grain field with heads bowed. “Nothing unusual about this gathering,” I thought as a photographer scouting possible photo opportunities. But then, slight movement in the far field from the main road caught my eye. Up, up , and away, like from a trampoline rose a pair of Sandhills as if they were in their mating dance. But wait, this was late September, not the mating season, which occurs in the spring. Before migrating south, unrelated Sandhill Cranes congregate in the thousands to forage. Cranes within these survival groups can easily become anxious within the crowded fields, much like urbanized America when we require more elbow space.  

In a nearby field, hundreds more of these birds quietly pecked until some adrenaline rush lifted them from the earth in pairs or groups with a wingspan display of seven feet and legs two feet long. They hurtled upwards into the air with six-foot leaps like graceful ballerinas, yet undeniable aggression. Don’t be fooled by these long-beaked birds, who will spread their wings in defense of territorial mating and protection of their chicks. Their long beaks have been known to pierce more than just a screened window.  

For the next three weeks in late September and early October, I drove to the stubble fields on route 87 towards Wilsall, arriving by 8 a.m. when the cranes and fields were lit by early morning, gold light. I armed myself with my giant 500mm lens and tripod. But before I approached, I took notes as to my position with the birds according to the sun. I wanted it at my backside so the crane bodies were lit and well defined against the golden wheat fields with no shadows as they started to perform. Once I established my location, I slowly walked into the open field, after the farmer’s permission, to set up on the cranes. They were unperturbed by my presence until I reached the 40-meter mark which then seemed to intrude upon their territorial field.  

Adults and juveniles uncoiled upwards with agile, spiraling movements showing off their nimble bodies. In kick boxing style, they unleashed lethal jabs with their clawed feet while needle-sharp beaks pecked at opponents. Most often, their jabs and pecks didn’t make contact so frustration was taken out on bits of turf and twigs which were snatched and thrown in the air. Their amazing acrobatics challenged my quick finger and eye in capturing their displays. Wings unfolded and flapped open and closed as their bodies twisted with heads looking back in classic ballet poses. Bowing with beaks agape and then leaping was the norm for two or more birds but for only seconds at a time. Raucous clucking between a pair was a sign that they were about to leap forth.  

Each morning shoot lasted only about an hour.

Once I started my forward progression, the flock moved towards the end of the gold grain field. Birds continued to land and take off in flight but after an hour, the edge of the field was reached and the cranes had now approached a scrubby, muted green grassy area which didn’t show off the crane colors. Next day, I would start again and hope for another surprise for my morning shoot. Fog was so thick one morning, I needed high-powered headlights. Once, I arrived, the cranes were mystical ghosts with clucks and squawks emanating from “out there.” This atmospheric scene was challenging. After 30 minutes, the fog began to lift and sun filtered through the fog which gave a soft, diffused light on my subject. This diffused light is a photographer’s dream, the opposite to harsh light in which dark shadows will appear. My background was now in a soft, misty gray while the gold fields were dulled in color. The muted grays and rust-toned feathers were still vivid. The foggy conditions did not deter their behavior. Neither did the farmer’s cattle and mingling deer who all laid claim to the stubble fields.  

As for me, the new natural elements gave my photos another dimension. That morning and 16 other mornings, I walked away from the fields knowing my photo challenges were complete and rewarding. 

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