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Crane Music

Step away from the viewfinder and enjoy the view.

November 7, 2015 Birds

Autumn has a split personality this year. It swings from the warmth of July one day to the chill of December the next.

The last of the fall foliage was stripped off of the maples and beeches during a recent thunderstorm. Only the oaks hold onto their subtler browns and tans. The air is full of the earthy scent of fallen leaves in the forest and the smell of cut cornstalks and soybean stubble in the farm fields.

Here at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northern Indiana, the November air is filled with crane music, too.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis, formerly Grus canadensis*) are migrating from their northern nesting sites to their southern wintering grounds. They'll roost here for a few more weeks as they prepare for a long flight to Texas or New Mexico. By day, they scavenge nearby farmlands for corn kernels and soybeans dropped by the harvesting machines. At night, they sleep in the marsh that's part of the state wildlife area.

Sandhill cranes at sunset.

At home for the last month, I've heard crane calls on the wind and spotted them in loose lines high over head. And I photographed a group of 30 or 40 at a wetland preserve nearby. But the weekly reports from the refuge have shown steadily-increasing numbers that have grown too high to ignore -- about 20,000 birds a few days ago. So Mary and I pack up for a short road trip and a couple of days with cranes.

We reach the wildlife area at midday. The sky is clear, the winds are calm and it's t-shirt weather for now. We saw a few cranes in the surrounding farm fields, but as we suspected, there are none in the protected wetland. Instead, they are feeding and resting in small groups as far away as ten miles from here. About an hour before sunset, they'll return in big, noisy flocks.

Taking our cue from the cranes, we eat a late lunch out of the cooler and catch a nap after reading aloud from stories about Sandhills. We wake up when a few cars come into the parking lot.

We're a couple hundred yards from a big viewing platform at the edge of the wet meadow. But we choose to stay in the mowed area along side it. I'd like the freedom to move around when the birds come back to the roosting grounds.

Soon the sky fills with cranes flying in from all directions. Groups of ten to 15 birds glide in, circle and stack up over the marsh. They drop down in an orderly way that looks choreographed.

The evening sky takes on a yellow-orange glow from the dust of harvesting. The number of cranes grows. And the chorus of their calls defines a cacophony.

Individually, a Sandhill crane's vocalizations are called as a trill, a rattle and a bugle -- all good descriptions. But when thousands of birds gather in the air and on the ground, their excited voices swirl around us in an ancient symphony that drowns out all thought. We just smile and stare at the cranes and each other. Sometimes you have to look away from the viewfinder and enjoy the view.

As the calls crescendo and waves of birds land in the meadow, I remember what I read at lunch in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. He said of the cranes, "On motionless wing, they sweep a final arc of sky and settle into clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds."

If you'd like to hear the calls of Sandhill cranes, click here for recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

*The Sandhill crane was formerly placed in the genus Grus with other cranes, but a molecular phylogenetic study published in 2010 found that the Sandhill is a separate genus, named Antigone, as it was first catergorized in the 1800s.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH) (Techniques for Photographing Birds)

SUBJECT: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Widlife Area, Indiana

CONDITIONS: Clear, calm, mild temperatures

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D4S, 500mm with a 1.4X teleconverter, tripod, ball head

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/2,500 sec at f/8, ISO 1600; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Auto focus, Continuous High shutter-release mode

TECHNIQUE: We came back to this wildlife area for the first time after a gloomy-weather visit ten years ago. Sometimes it seems silly not to get to good places close to home more often. The crane migration stretches from September to December and peaks in November. Often I've been other places in the fall, so I didn't keep it high on my list of autumn locations. But this year it worked out that the cranes' calendar and mine synced.

I wanted to spend a few days with the Sandhill cranes, so I watched the weather and the crane count. A string of clear days and a very large gathering of cranes synced, too. A check of the map showed what I remembered as the orientation of the preserve to the local roads and the large observation platform near the marsh.

At sunrise, birds lifting off to the east would fly into the low-angled morning light that would front light them. And at sunset, westbound cranes would be front lit, too, while eastbound birds would be sidelit or silhouetted.

For this evening, I chose a place on the grassy lawn beside the platform where I could see birds from all directions. And I could move around, unrestricted by ramps and railings. I hoped to capture photographs of a sky full of cranes, small groups in flight and just one or two flying together.

By staying on the ground, I also had more chances to aim up and isolate them against the clear sky. From the platform, I'd look down and see some birds against the trees that lined the open meadow.

I set up a large tripod for the 500mm lens with the 1.4X teleconverter. This heavy combination which equaled 700mm needed a steady platform. I attached the 80-400mm zoom lens to another camera body and hung it around my neck. I would hand hold this one.

Now I was ready for subjects at medium and long telephoto distances without changing lenses. I chose a fast ISO and a medium aperture which gave me a shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion on the birds and eliminate blurriness from camera shake. The Vibration Reduction setting also helped on the handheld combination, but I turned it off for the camera and lens on the tripod. The Continuous High setting for the shutter-release mode allowed me to fire off quick bursts when birds were where I wanted them.

Over the next hour, I made many compositions of single birds and groups in all directions. The auto focus function on both cameras tracked the birds well. I had set them up with the Auto Focus command on the back of each camera (the button marked "AF-ON" on these bodies). I pressed the button for continuing focus on the moving birds. If I released the button, the auto focus disengaged. So I held the auto focus button down with my thumb while I was tracking and framing birds and clicked the shutter button with my index finger when I had what I wanted in the viewfinder. That focusing method has increased the percentage of sharp wildlife images I make compared to any other technique I've tried.

As the sun dropped near the horizon, I chose the group of birds in the photograph above when they were far off. I aimed at them as they flew toward me, then past me, clicking short bursts as they went.

Each frame recorded their wings and bodies in different positions. Those that pleased me most were the moments when the bodies and wings didn't overlap. I was especially happy to have the cranes angling as a diagonal across the frame. The lone bird in the bottom left corner became a punctuation mark. For an evening like this, the appropriate punctuation was an exclamation point.

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