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Coffee and Cranes

What a difference a day makes in light and in understanding.

November 8, 2015 Birds

Last night, we fell asleep with the memory of the calls of cranes as a lullaby.

Today's weather forecast was for clear skies and calm winds, so I knew my dreams would be crowded with Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis, formerly Grus canadensis*) lifting off into the sunrise. And a quick review of yesterday's photographs was the best nightcap I could ask for.

For this short trip, we decided to overnight in a motel about 30 miles from the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area where the cranes gather on their fall migration.

Often times, we tent camp on longer trips. It turns out the only lodging in town is one rustic step above tenting. But it's location is near a good local pub where we ate dinner last night. And across the street, the gas station/convenience store will be open early with coffee and breakfast stuff we can eat as we drive back to the refuge.

Flying Sandhill cranes.

A pair of Sandhill cranes fly toward the morning sun.

We rise early, so we can shower, pack, make a quick stop to grab our breakfast and still get to the preserve long before sunup. But when I look out the motel room window while we're gathering our things to leave, I see there's already predawn light in the sky that I'd expect about an hour before sunrise. I thought it would be dark.

I believed we were in the Central time zone like the wildlife area. It turns out we're back in Eastern time by a few miles. The sunrise time posted at the visitors center was an hour off from my watch and now we're an hour late.

Indiana stepped into the real world of time zones a few years back, so now we honor Daylight Saving Time like the rest of the country does, save Arizona. But the redrawn line separating the two zones runs a zig-zag course down the state that looks like a child drew it. Or a group of bureaucrats.

We quickly pack the car and swing into the convenience store parking lot. We may be running late, but we need some breakfast-to-go and coffee. Make it two large cups, please and fill the thermos, too. We were showered and dressed before I looked out at the morning sky. But as much as a hot shower wakes me, there's no real chance for good photographs without coffee.

We head west to the reserve. I try to keep my grumbling to a minimum. It's my own fault for assuming my timing was right. We'll miss first light, so the pictures that danced in my dreams are dashed. As we get closer, we see groups of birds in flight. I'm sure there will be none left to photograph. We may as well just turn around and head for home.

But those small flocks are the early birds. The latest count claimed that 20,000 cranes are here, so many more are still in the marsh and the open wet meadow where they gather before lifting off to feed in the nearby farm fields.

When we pull into the parking lot near the observation platform, I admit the dream photo is just that. Today, at least, the dawn sky full of birds is fiction and maybe it always is. Knowing for sure would take another morning here. But I need to make good photographs now.

We drive to the first north-south farm road outside the preserve. We scouted it yesterday as a potential morning location for cranes in the corn stubble or birds flying low overhead. That's exactly what we get. Now what I nearly wrote off as a lost day becomes a great morning with waves of cranes cruising into the sunshine. I stop clicking the shutter now and then as we take in the scene and more coffee? Yes, please.

*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 D810, 500mm with a 1.4X teleconverter, tripod, ball head

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/2,000 sec at f/8, ISO 500; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Auto focus, Continuous High shutter-release mode, Vibration Reduction function on handheld camera

What a difference a day makes in light and in understanding. Yesterday's late-day light was just right for the returning cranes as they gathered high overhead, spiraled down and landed in the marsh where they roost at night. Some birds were warmly front lighted, others were brushed with side light and many become silhouettes against a cloudless sky.

This morning, the perspective I found was that of birds flying low toward the sun and me. The light illuminated the cranes from tip to tail. Their wing and breast feathers were revealed in great detail. Their red cap feathers glowed. And the catch light in their orange eyes was electric. It was light of a different warmth and character. It said "morning" in a clear, crisp way.

And my understanding of the cranes was different, too. Last night, I thought today's cranes would lift off in great flocks, circle and float high into the morning -- a reversal of the way they arrived last night. Instead, they took off in clusters of five or ten, flew just above the tree tops and glided into the harvested farm fields as close as a few hundred yards from the marsh. Those that ventured farther didn't climb any higher as they dropped into far-off fields or disappeared in the distance.

I realized the Sandhills wanted to save their energy and didn't want to miss the corn seed and soybeans cast off by the harvesting machines. They could do neither if they gained more altitude. Since they may search fields as far away as ten miles during the day and they wouldn't return until an hour before dusk, flying low and slow on the way back wouldn't be practical either. So they catch late-day thermals that lift them high into the breezes they can ride home to the marsh. Between the evening and the morning, I learned simple, important lessons about light and about Sandhill cranes.

To make the photograph above and others like it, I repeated the methods I used for the returning cranes the day before. I had one camera body on the 500mm lens + 1.4X teleconverter combination that I placed on a tripod. And to another body, I attached the 80-400mm zoom that I handheld. This way I could cover distances near to far, groups and individual without changing lenses.

I chose the rear-button Auto Focus control (marked AF-ON on these bodies). As I panned with the passing birds, I held down the back auto-focus button with my thumb. The auto focusing tracked the cranes and I clicked the shutter button with my index finger when the compositions were right. The Continuous High shutter mode allowed me to fire quick bursts of images as I followed the flying birds. And the Vibration Reduction function made for steadier photographs with the handheld setup, but I turned it off on the tripod-mounted combination.

This spot along the farm road was the second or third place where I stopped and photographed birds this morning as clusters of them leap-frogged their way to farther and farther-away fields.

I had scouted this road and others the day before. I'd hoped they would make good access routes to the cranes as they spread out. Knowing this before the morning light was right and the birds were on the move meant I could concentrate on making photographs instead of studying maps.

So in the span of an evening and a morning, I learned lessons about what light to anticipate here, how the Sandhill cranes come and go, and the value of knowing the location. I learned a lesson on how to tell time a bit better, too.

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