Posts from the ‘Sandhill Cranes’ Category

Yellowstone May 2014—Snowbanks to Sandhills, Marmots to Mountain Bluebirds

Has it been a tough winter in Minnesota? Ja, sure ya betcha! Up near Lake Superior we had 84 days that were below zero, Eleven feet of snow, Minus 50 degree windchills, a couple days of minus 40 air temps, and snow on the ground until Mid May. In fact, when we left from Wrenshall on May 11, I still had snow in my ravine! So what’s a little more winter in Yellowstone? Temps ranged from 22 degrees to around 60 degrees, but there was still much residual snow from winter in the Hayden Valley. The Lamar Valley was snow free. It all depended on your elevation.

Sparky jump Hayden Valley snowbank Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_7173 Twelve-foot high snow banks greeted us in several passes in the Hayden Valley on May 12th! I’m jumping as high as I can and nowhere near the top.

Mountain Bluebird on snow near Canyon Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_8187 Is there a more beautiful blue in Nature? The Mountain Bluebird actually seems to glow when seen in the right light. Though not technically iridescent, the blue color is created by tiny air pockets in the barbs of feathers which scatter incoming light. So we are seeing reflected light, not blue pigment in the feathers. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1250, braced on car window frame]

Hayden Valley spring snow Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_7191 The Hayden Valley in mid May. Snow-covered and beautiful. [Canon 7D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, f10 at 1/400, handheld]

Ryan and Sparky Hayden Valley snowbank Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_7170 Ryan Marshik and Sparky dwarfed by a twelve-foot snowbank in the Hayden Valley.

Sandhill Crane near Norris in snow Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_6898Sandhill Cranes nest in the Park. We found this guy between Mammoth and Norris. I like how the S-curve of his neck matches the curving stream. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f6.3 at 1/6400 (not sure why I had such a high ISO...A mistake for sure), braced on car window frame]

Hoary Marmot Marmota caligota near Norris Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_6935

Hoary Marmot juvenile Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_7498Juvenile Yellow-bellied Marmot. Adorable!

Hoary Marmot Marmota caligota near Norris Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_6940 The three above are the very personable Yellow-bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris), a mountain-dwelling rodent that lives in talus slopes and boulder fields of the western U.S. The closest they get to Minnesota is the Black Hills of South Dakota. Their cousin the Hoary Marmot is found in British Columbia and Washington state (Marmota caligota).

Marmots have a “harem-polygynous” mating system in which the male defends two or three mates at the same time. They hibernate from September to May, which explains why we never see them on our fall trips in late September or early October. They are omnivorous but eat mainly plant material supplementing with grasshoppers, bird’s eggs, etc. Each colony is 10-20 individuals. Marmots can live to 15 years! When alarmed they give a high-pitched whistle, which is how they got their nickname..”Whistle Pig.”

Great Horned Owl Mammoth Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_8927 We found out that there is a Great Horned Owl nest near the natural history museum/visitor center at Mammoth…and it has been there for years. We just stumbled upon it when we saw a photographer shooting something and went to investigate. A Black-billed Magpie was mercilessly harassing the owl…from only a foot away! (I got some video). [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1250, tripod]

Pronghorn buck between Mammoth and Tower Junction Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_6826 Male Pronghorn just sitting around chewing its cud…literally. When I watched my video of this buck, you can see the wave in his neck as he regurgitates food into his mouth to chew again. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f7.1 at 1/160, tripod]

Coyote close Hayden Valley Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_8180 It usually pays to stay out in the field until the sun goes down. We found this Coyote hunting the Hayden Valley sagebrush flats in golden light. He came quite close to me as this shot is barely cropped! [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2000, Handheld]

Coyote leap Hayden Valley Yellowstone National Park WY IMG_8123 He made some magnificent leaps in order to break through the crusty snow to get at small rodents but all were too far away for good photos…but I did get some video and this HIGHLY cropped image.

Photo to Quilt


I got a wonderful surprise in the mail a while back. Unbeknownst to me, my friend from Wilderness Canoe Base, Beret (Borson) Nelson had created an art quilt based on one of my photos I had put in a blog post. It is an image I took at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin of 3 sunset-silhouetted Sandhill Cranes. The quilt piece is beautiful!

My father-in-law, with his amazing artistic eye, had it framed as a present.

Beret and her husband, Brett, met at Wilderness Canoe Base on the end of the Gunflint Trail in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. I worked there too and that is where we all connected. Brett and Beret live outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Brett is a wildlife biologist. They have three kids. Neat family!

Beret says art quilting is a rapidly growing art form ….It is machine stitching called “free motion stitching” in which the feed mechanism is disengaged so you can sew in any direction. All those cattails and rushes are individually free stitched with the machine! Beret also uses an iron and fabric glue to layer hand cut shapes into the design. Beret recently won Grand Champion in the Art Quilt division at the fair this year…I can see why!

Late-season Cranes at Crex Meadows

I hadn’t been out shooting with Ryan for a long time. You know how it is…life gets in the way. So on Friday we headed down to Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, Wisconsin for a little “target practice.” Sandhill Cranes stage here in late autumn to fuel up for their next stage of migration. The cranes feed in area corn fields during the day, but return to roost in the safety of Crex Meadows marshes just before sunset.

When Ryan pointed out the rising moon, I knew what photo I wanted. It’s easy to get cranes flying in front of the moon…The hard part is getting enough depth of field for both to be in focus and yet have enough shutter speed to stop the motion of the flying cranes. So I stopped down to f16 and set the shutter speed to 1/500 and set the ISO to “Auto.” You need a fair amount of light to do this so it must be when the moon is rising before the sun sets but before it gets too high in the sky. Also the cranes need to be not too close and not too far away. It all came together in this shot, though the ISO did have to range up to 1250.

The trip was mainly about just getting out with a buddy…We both have more crane photos than we can count…We’ve been to Crex many times and also spent a glorious five days in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache, a major wintering area for Lesser Sandhill Cranes (and they are even more tame than these Greaters).

Long story, short, I have some very nice Sandhill Crane portrait shots (sharp, beautiful light, etc) So, with the pressure off, it was time to experiment. And this may be my favorite photo from the entire trip (all 6 hours of it!). I slowed the shutter to 1/15 of a second and panned with the flocks as they came in to roost. I cropped it and converted it to black and white. It is the “essence” of crane flight. I love the abstract flow and motion, and the way you can almost see and feel their wings flapping. We joked with Sridhar, a fellow wildlife photographer from Minneapolis, about our mistakes becoming “fine art” photography…but this one was intentional…I promise!

A line of Greater Sandhill Cranes coming in from the west, flying through a streak of color as the sun set.

Top: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f/16 at 1/500 second at ISO 1250, tripod
Middle: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f/32 at 1/15 second at ISO 100, tripod
Bottom: Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x teleconverter; f/8 at 1/200 second at ISO 500, tripod

Found Treasure

I love it when you go back through photos you took a long time ago and find a hidden gem…an image you bypassed in the first round of editing. In this case I was looking for photos of my eldest son when I came upon images from a trip to Crex Meadows with Ryan Marshik in October of last year. Not sure why I dismissed this image at the time, but now it is one of my favorite all time Sandhill Crane photos.

In order for the moon and the cranes to be in focus, the birds had to be a long ways away. This was shot at f8 so there was enough depth of field to keep both sharp. This is NOT a double exposure or computer generated image. Maybe it would be better if the moon was in the upper left and the cranes were in the bottom right….But I don’t know, I kind of like the feeling that the cranes are MOVING…Migrating south…They’ve put the moon behind them and they have a long journey ahead.

Canon 7D, 400mm lens, f8, 1/1000, ISO 400, tripod with Wimberly Sidekick

Crane in the Clouds

The Sandhill Cranes drifted in to their night roost in small flocks of three to a dozen or so. Ryan, Chris and I were shooting with our longest telephotos, isolating single cranes in flight. Then as the light started to fade I switched to a wide angle lens to shoot video, panning as they glided in not far over our heads. An interesting cloud formation had formed so I also took a few images with the camera set to stills. I didn’t think much about the image on the back of my camera, but as often happens, it became a favorite once I viewed it on a larger computer screen. I like the juxtaposition of the crane small and centered in the frame against a symmetrical backdrop of softly lit clouds. The vignette was added in Aperture.

We were at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It is a refuge for thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers and dozens of other species including many birds of prey. There is no shortage of  subjects here! Mammals include Elk, Coyote, Mule Deer, Bobcat. It is a place I would like to return to someday.

Canon 7D, Sigma 10-20mm at 20mm, f8 at 1/350, ISO 250, handheld

Landing Gear Down

Previsualization is important, but the truth is—to quote the Rolling Stones—you don’t always get what you want. On this evening I wanted a nice full frame head-on shot of two to four Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing, legs lowered, wings out. They would be in beautiful evening light. Didn’t happen. They all landed far out in the marsh.

But when reviewing  the images on my computer I found one photo with five cranes with their landing gear down…Yes, it was a mile away and in terrible light, but I made lemonade out of lemons. By tightly cropping the image and performing some extreme color shifts in Aperture, I created a pleasing (to me) graphic creation. Is it still a photograph? Sure. Is it faithful to what I witnessed that evening in the marsh? Not totally. Do I like it better than the original shown below? Heck, ya!

Canon XTi, Canon 400mm f5.6, f5.6 at 1/1600, ISO 400, Tripod

The original below:

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