In Search of Sandhill Cranes
February is the month to head to Galveston in hopes of seeing Sandhill Cranes. They are large birds that flock together in the short-grassed fields away from the beach houses and hotels. In fact, searching for the distinctive gray spots in the open areas reminds you how rural a good portion of the island remains.
Sandhill Cranes winter with us and search the fields for seeds, cultivated grains and even berries, tubers and small vertebrates. They are often found near cattle and horses. The large birds stand 3 to 4ft (80-122cm) tall and have a very distinctive loud, rattling call.
And it is fairly easy to find a group or even large flock of the birds. The problem is they seem to have some secret bird sense that registers your presence in the vehicle or standing by the fence. Once you are noticed, the flock slowly turns and deliberately moves away out of camera range so you just get gray blobs in a field of grass.
This is a typical shot... the back side of interesting birds. One did raise his wings briefly and glance at the camera. Note the crimson head. We don't get to see the elaborate dancing courtship displays since they don't breed here but occasionally one will jump up and give us a hint of that behavior.
You can see in the above shot these fields are right next to houses. Birds are very adaptable to development. Yes, they do need open spaces and the appropriate habitat, but they aren't as specialized as say... Koala bears who survive on basically one kind of leaf.
I was pretty thrilled to get this action shot; mostly they just forage and slowly move away from you. But, my fave photographer Bill Maroldo and I did find a small foursome that seemed to forget we were sitting in the truck at the edge of the road. Over the course of an hour they moved closer to us.
From watching these four we speculated there were two males and two females. Two of the cranes seemed to alternate guard duty while the others foraged. The research I have done notes that they live in pairs or family groups or even larger groups of non-related members during migration. Offspring stay with parents (who mate for life) until a few months before the next year's eggs are laid.
I was hand-holding my shots from the passenger side. Bill had his 500mm braced on a bean bag in the driver's side window and got some spectacular close-ups.
After 573 photos of Sandhill cranes for me (and most to be deleted) I was ready for a change. Coming back from Galveston we stopped at San Luis Pass for a young Reddish Egret who clearly wanted no part of posing but we had better luck at the Crabbing Pier outside of Surfside.
About a dozen White Ibis were resting on the piers and walkway at the very end of the structure. Saying "Ibises" sounds weird; I usually say "Ibi" for the plural. They look goofy enough alone, but two trying to crowd the same perch was chuckle-worthy. These are just dirty from all that mud probing they do for dinner.
In the parking lot we happened on a Loggerhead Shrike. These little guys are fearless killers and they often impale the small birds, reptiles, mammals or insects they catch on barbed wire fences or spines. He is actually a song bird and mostly seen high on overhead wires.
This is my first shot ever of a shrike perched at near eye level. We first saw him on a short post and Bill positioned the truck for me to get the first shots. We have a running joke about who gets the "best side" for vehicle shots. I fired off 5 shots in 4 seconds and the bird bolted, as expected. But he landed on this dead vine in front of the palms almost straight out my window. I managed to get some good shots (including this one) but he was gone to another bush in less than a minute. By that time I was practically contorted trying to shoot out the window far to my right. Bill never even got set up for a shot. It was over that quick.
And he still gives me a hard time about this capture.
We stopped by the Clapper Rail Memorial Pond, but the light was coming from the wrong direction plus the water level was just too high for wading birds. But, we did find a Reddish Egret perched on a culvert, watching the swirling waters for fish. They are beginning to get nice shaggy feathers in preparation for breeding season. I shot this from the truck window looking down on him; Bill got a fantastic shot full body capture because he took his tripod and waded out in the water.
And so it goes. Sometimes the birds are there, and other times you have to work hard for your shots.
Do you remember when I saw the cranes last year? Would you have patience to sit for an hour waiting on birds to come closer? Do you think the Loggerhead Shrike is a creepy songbird? Would you wade out in the water wearing rubber boots knowing there were no alligators around? Let me know in the comments.