Photography and text by Marie Read
Each March and April, half a million Sandhill Cranes flock to Central Nebraska’s Platte River on their northward migration, and so do numerous avid wildlife photographers eager to capture images of this avian extravaganza! Here’s where to go for the best crane photo ops of this must-see event.
The Crane Trust in Grand Island and the Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney offer crane-viewing tours to the public to enjoy observing the birds but they are not ideal for serious photography. Experienced bird photographers using long telephoto lenses may be frustrated by the configurations of some of the public blinds and by the restrictions on certain photographic activities that, for good reasons, are in place on the general tours. For instance, on general tours tripods are not allowed nor is continuous mode shooting, both of which detract from the experience of other crane watchers. To avoid scaring the cranes, both organizations also prohibit using electronic flash in ANY of their blinds and lenses must not protrude out of windows.
Instead, choose one of the options that each organization offers to photographers. That’s how I came to be bumping down a dirt track on a four-wheeler late one March afternoon, loaded with camera gear, tripod, sleeping bag, folding stool, and food, en route to my night’s lodging. My guide dropped me off at a small wooden shed on the bank of the Platte River. Not exactly a five-star hotel, but I was thrilled! I was to spend the night in a special photography blind overlooking a major Sandhill Crane roost at the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney, Nebraska. And what a memorable experience I had!
As evening approached the sky began to fill with flocks of cranes arriving from all directions. They crowded onto the sandbars scattered across the broad, shallow river, eventually landing so close to where I sat hidden that I could hear the sounds of their giant wings even above the clamor of their bugling calls! Their first task was to strut to the water’s edge to drink. Then as others jostled their way into the crowd a few began dancing. They leaped excitedly into the air, bouncing stiff-legged with outspread wings, or bowed and curtseyed while ruffling the long wing feathers covering their tails (poetically termed the “bustle”). They dance as part of courtship behavior but one can’t help but think that sheer exuberance is a factor too!
All the while, more and more cranes were landing in the background, filling the view from shore to shore. With all this activity going on, it’s no surprise that my camera was getting a workout! I was glad to have the versatility of my Canon 100-400mm zoom lens, allowing me to get both close-ups of small groups of cranes and wide shots to include the landscape without changing lenses. On this particular trip, I had no choice but to travel light meaning I had left my 500mm f/4 lens behind, but on a future visit I would certainly bring it too. Other items I brought included Canon 24-105mm wide-angle zoom lens, tripod, 1.4X teleconverter, extra batteries and LOTS of memory cards! (Tip: for affordable and very versatile telephoto options, check out the latest 150-600 zoom lenses from Sigma or Tamron (available with Nikon and Canon mounts).
I watched the gathering cranes until long after it became too dark for photography, and then closed the windows against the cold. Snuggling into my sleeping bag, I enjoyed a sandwich and sipped some hot tea, before settling down to sleep, lulled into a night of dreams through which the calls of cranes ebbed and flowed like the tides.
IF YOU GO:
Plan your trip: Reserve your spot early! Space is limited and, since crane migration occurs during just a few weeks, photographer tours and photo blinds at both the Crane Trust and the Rowe Sanctuary quickly book up, often 80-90% full by New Year’s.
Clothing: Be prepared for the cold. March in Nebraska may be mild but it also can be very cold, and the blinds are unheated. You will be standing or sitting still for long periods. Staying in an overnight blind should be considered winter camping so pack accordingly. Bring winter coat and boots, warm gloves, hat, and thick socks. Wear clothing in layers that you can shed if necessary. Air-activated hand warmer packs in each pocket will keep fingers nimble for pressing the shutter button or changing camera settings; they’re available for toes too.
Blind etiquette: It’s important to avoid any disturbance to the roosting cranes at this critical time during their migration. Once inside the blind, keep as still and quiet as possible. No flashlights are allowed (guides use small red lights). Follow any other instructions the guides may have. For the safety of the cranes and your own safety and comfort, be sure to carefully read each organization’s rules and suggestions for what to wear/bring.
Rowe Sanctuary, Kearney: options for photographers
Designed especially for photographers, this group tour lets you use tripods and shoot in continuous mode, neither of which is allowed on the General Crane Tours. The unheated blind accommodates about 8 photographers and has large unglazed windows. (Note: As a short person, I found the windows a little too high to see over comfortably, although small stepstools were available to stand on. That was OK, although I felt somewhat unstable.)
Serious photographers can book a night in one of the Rowe Sanctuary’s overnight blinds. In late afternoon, a staff member transports you and your gear to one of several 2-person blinds located near major crane roosts. The small wooden structures are close to the riverbank, with large windows giving a 180-degree view. You’ll have great photo opportunities with close views of thousands of cranes. For the safety of the cranes, you must stay in the blind until staff collects you next morning (each blind has a porta-potty). And for your own safety and comfort, be sure to carefully read the Sanctuary’s suggestions for what to bring/wear. Download the Photo Blind Information document from the link above.
Other places near Kearney to photograph cranes:
Cranes forage throughout the day for waste grain in fields around the Rowe Sanctuary and may be viewed and photographed easily from local roads using your vehicle as a blind. Use a beanbag over the open car window to support your lens. (Tip: If I’m flying to a photo destination, I take an empty beanbag and fill it with birdseed purchased at my location.)
For flight shots, crane flocks heading to and from roosting areas can also be photographed from the bridge on the hike-bike trail in the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, from shortly before sunset to dark, or for a couple of hours around sunrise.
Crane Trust, Grand Island: options for photographers
Choose options through links on the Crane Trust’s main tour page.
Private overnight photo/viewing blinds:
Serious photographers can spend the night in one of several two-person overnight blinds located near major crane roosts. You’ll have both a morning and an evening photo session, and you’re likely to get some spectacular shots. Crane Trust guides get you and your gear settled in the blind in late afternoon, and to avoid spooking roosting cranes you must stay inside until the guides pick you up next morning after the cranes have left (each blind has a porta-potty). And for your own safety and comfort, be sure to carefully read the Crane Trust’s downloadable .pdf document containing rules and suggestions for what to bring/wear.
Footbridge Evening Tours, evening only:
For flight shots, accompany a guide to the Crane Trust’s private footbridge over the Platte with its 360-degree view of thousands of cranes flying over to roosting areas for the night.
The Crane Trust Sandhill Crane Photo Workshop is designed for the intermediate and advanced photographer using a digital SLR camera. Participants photograph from custom-built photo blinds on the Platte River as thousands of cranes leave the river at first light and return to the river at sunset, and from local roads. Included in the 4-day workshop are image editing and critique sessions, plus lectures about photography and the Crane Trust’s conservation efforts. Workshops are limited to a maximum of 10 participants (with 2 instructors). Private workshops are also available.
Marie Read is a professional wildlife photographer and author, specializing in birds and bird behavior. Her work appears regularly in such magazines as Living Bird, Birding, Ranger Rick and numerous others worldwide, plus in calendars and books. She’s pursued photo projects throughout North America as well in Australia, East Africa and Central America, but captures numerous memorable images in her own backyard too. She has authored many articles about birds and bird photography, as well as four books, most recently Sierra Wings: Birds of the Mono Lake Basin and Into The Nest (co-authored with Laura Erickson).