Stalking the Sandhill Cranes

Stalking the Sandhill Cranes

Jan 20, 2017 ~ One of the exciting winter birding events is the return of the Sandhill Cranes. They court and breed on the high plains and Canada, but come south for the winter. We see them in open fields along the coast and even west of Houston along I-10. There are huge flocks of hundreds of birds, but you can also find smaller groups of a dozen or even three together that might be a family.

We don't get to see the dancing courtship rituals but occasionally a small skirmish will arise and we see some wing action. They are fun to photograph but really fairly difficult subjects. Often you can find great flocks in an open field and get excited about getting some shots. They seem to have some instinctual warning signal as once you get stopped and out of the vehicle they start to slowly move away. They are extremely wary; probably because they are hunted. Texas has several ranges where permitted hunting is allowed; there is a strict limit of the number of birds you can take. I have seen them referred to as "Ribeye of the Sky" but I don't like to even think about that.

Once you find a group of birds, most of your shots will be of their backsides. If you can get a flock to stay in range, one strategy is to isolate a single bird.

Stately Sandhill Crane Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

Stately Sandhill Crane
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

This guy is a regal subject, surveying his range. The largest ones are almost 4 feet tall, with a wingspread of six and a half feet. Males and females are the same size but a flock may have juveniles that haven't reached full growth yet. Sandhill Cranes mate for life and generally raise one chick who stays close by until the pair is ready to breed again.

Keeping a look out while others feed Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

Keeping a look out while others feed
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

Whenever you do find Sandhills, at least one will be on the look out while the others feed. I believe the adults take turns but they are usually found in very open fields where their view (and escape route) is unimpeded.

Mom, Dad and junior Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 800

Mom, Dad and junior
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 800

I think this is a family group. The juvenile on the right still has what looks like baby feathers and he hasn't developed his red cap yet, nor the characteristic orange eye. Sandhill Cranes can breed as early as two years old but many are as old as seven before finding a mate. This youngster will leave his parents when they return north and join a flock of other juveniles and non-breeders until he finds a mate.

Quick escape Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/7.1 ISO 1000

Quick escape
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/7.1 ISO 1000

Driving down Homrighaus Rd on the west end of Galveston Island I saw three Sandhill Cranes in the yard ( ! ) of the house next to where we had seen some Peacocks. By the time we stopped and I ran back they were taking off. Very unusual to see a Sandhill Crane against a green background!

Sandhill Crane preening Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 640

Sandhill Crane preening
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 640

We found a group in Galveston off 8 Mile Rd who were fairly close and preening. Great luck to find some that would stand still! We set up at a gate and used the structure for support of the long lenses. With the teleconverter my reach is 740mm and the image above is a pretty large crop (original is 36mp; cropped to 9mp and reduced for web to 1000px high). A cropped camera and long lens will give you more "reach" but the ability to crop without losing image quality is limited. It is a tough choice; these guys just don't do close ups.

Attention to details Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 640

Attention to details
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 640

Here is another pretty tight crop showing him attending his feathers. That rusty coloration can vary during the year.

Just look at those eyelashes! Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

Just look at those eyelashes!
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/800 sec f/6.3 ISO 1250

Sandhill Cranes feed in open fields, but also in pastures so you get the opportunity to practice cow portraiture. The guys in the field on the other side of the road where we were parked kept edging closer to the fence. I don't know if they expected to be fed or were just curious. This young one looked like he wanted a treat.

Welcome winter visitors Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000 sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

Welcome winter visitors
Nikon D810 with NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR + Nikon 1.4x TC ~ 1/2000
sec f/6.3 ISO 1000

The Sandhill Crane populations are rated Least Concern and are abundant enough to allow controlled hunting. Their close relative, the Whooping Crane is seriously Endangered and number around 600 birds at this time. Most winter at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

I found one story where conservationists have used Sandhill Cranes as foster parents in captive breeding programs for Whooping Cranes with mixed success. One Whooping Crane imprinted on his Sandhill Crane caretakers and grew up to mate with a Sandhill Crane female. They raised a hybrid chick and then male Whooping Crane had to go to Mating Rehab. Why the researchers discounted or ignored Conrad Lorenz's classic behavioral work on imprinting is beyond me.

What is puzzling is how successful the Sandhill Crane has been contrasted to the Whooping Crane. They are closely related (both in the same family Grus) and have similar behavior: long migration, mate for life, both birds contribute to raising one chick, reach maturity around the same age. Almost all birds have had loss of habitat and both of these birds were over hunted until recent migratory bird protection statutes. One difference that I can see is in food sources: the Sandhill Crane seems omnivorous eating grain, seeds, insects, small mammals, reptiles and thrives in open fields and grasslands. The Whooping Crane's favored diet is more aquatic:

Whooping Cranes eat invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plant material, which they find on the ground and in shallow water. They peck and probe sandy or flooded soils to find prey underground. They also glean insects, berries, and seeds from low vegetation and take prey from the soil surface, using their bills to stab larger animals. The Canada breeding population eats mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects, minnows, frogs, snakes, mice, voles, aquatic tubers, and berries, while the Wisconsin breeding population eats mostly aquatic animals. Whooping Cranes also eat waste grains including barley, wheat, and corn from harvested fields, particularly during migration. On the Gulf Coast they feed in brackish bays, marshes, salt flats, and flooded or burned uplands away from human disturbance, eating mostly blue crabs, clams, and other animal foods, along with some plant material such as wolfberry, cranberry, acorns, cordgrass, marsh onions, and prairie lily.

The Whooping Crane nests in shallow marsh and wetlands; the Sandhill Crane prefers the same habitat but will nest on dry land near water. They have more similarities than differences but one has been more successful at adapting to the changing conditions than the other. Do you have any other information? I just find it interesting one bird has to have all this conservation intervention to survive and another with similar characteristics and pressures seems to be thriving.

Have you seen any Sandhill Cranes this winter? Or have you heard them fly over? And how is your luck at getting photos? Let me know in the comments below.

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