Category Archives: Sandhill Cranes

Photo of Sandhill Crane in Flight

Best Times to Photograph Wild Birds

Wild Bird Migration Patterns and Timelines

Happy New Year Everyone.

This photo of a sandhill crane in flight was taken just before Christmas. Earlier this week, I went back to the site where I took this shot to see if the sandhill cranes were still there. They were not. I then took quick trips to several other locations where the sandhill cranes like to feed. Nothing. So, I’m assuming that the last couple weeks of terrible ice, wind, snow, low temperatures and power outages convinced the SW Michigan sandhill cranes to start their migration south.

Photograph of Sandhill Crane
Sandhill Crane in Flight. A December Exit from the Cold Michigan Winter
ISO 500; f/7.1; 1/3200 second

Different Migratory Schedules for Different Birds

Different species of birds have different migration patterns and timelines that are predictable. My New Year’s resolution this year is to start building a bird journal listing the best times for peak spring migrations for the birds who visit southwest Michigan. No doubt, this journal will have to be revised from year to year, given weather, temperature drops, light, and rates at which the snow melts. My calculations will also have to take into consideration the amount of food /prey available as my selected passerines come through. And, of course, climate change, disease and habitat destruction impact migration numbers too.

Photographing Wild Birds At Peak Times

My goal is to be more productive in photographing birds at times when they are most active (fighting, mating, hunting, chick rearing, protecting, playing) and decked out in their best plumage.

Help From The Birding Community

I’m sure I’ll need help. There are lots of watchful, organized birders out there with loads of experience and serious study under their belts. The DNR and local raptor centers are always eager to help. These experts know when, where and how to look for newly arrived migratory birds. Many of them post their journals, charts and other resources on the web. Here is one example of a site that offers a wealth of migratory data sorted by states.

I look forward to this journaling challenge, and I will share my thoughts and observations when it looks like my journal might be helpful to other birders and photographers.

Wishing everyone fun and productive bird adventures in 2014.






Photo of Sandhill Crane Dancing

Photographing the Dance of the Sandhill Cranes

Bird Photography on the Road

Bird Photograpy on the road can stretch out to long, tedious hours. It’s hot. Impatient drivers behind you are leaning on their horns. The sun is rising in the sky fast, casting harsh shadows that you have to work around. Some days, all you see through your lens are the back feathers of robins and doves as they fly away from you.

Remember. You are on a photographic birding adventure! You’ve got to put time in the field to get the good shots. Persistence pays off.

Also remember that you are learning, and an essential part of learning is having FUN.

Planning Ahead Before You Go Out on the Road With Your Camera

When you are out with your camera, it’s a good idea to have a plan to keep yourself motivated and productive. The field guide that helps me determine my route for the day is A Birder’s Guide to Michigan by A.Chartier and J.Ziarno.

Most of my photography is done right from the car because, for the most part, birds are acclimated to vehicles. I park as close as possible to where I will be pointing my lens and then set myself a time limit. If the birds I came to photograph don’t show after an hour, I move to the next site on my schedule.

Stop and Take a Break

I take breaks. If I’m too far away from home, I stop for coffee and something to eat; and just to get out of the car. Today I stopped at Kismet Bakery, a great place for scones, bread (so-o-o-o  good!), and friendly faces.

Reinvigorated and all sugared up, I got back on the road. I retraced my morning route, just to check if the birds that weren’t there two hours ago had magically appeared.

And that’s when I saw them.

Sandhill Cranes Dancing in the Field

There, out in the open in a freshly cut farm field, stood five sandhill cranes feeding fairly close to the road. I pulled off to the shoulder of the road, shut down the car and got my camera into position. The cranes noticed me and slowly turned to move away. I thought it was going to be another bird back-end photo session. But then something wonderful happened. They started to dance.

Photograph of Sandhill Crane bowing
Sandhill Crane Taking a Bow

In my August 9 post about Sandhill Cranes, I wrote that the most fascinating part of watching sandhill cranes is when they dance. Well, right before my eyes, the cranes were bowing and leaping into the air, throwing branches and sticks with their beaks. Quite an amazing spectacle to behold. And I had my camera!

I was so excited, I wasn’t thinking about exposure or focus or shutter speed. Heck, I could hardly hold my camera straight. But somehow I got these shots.

Photo of Sandhill Cranes Dancing Photo of Sandhill Cranes Dancing Photograph of Sandhill Cranes Dancing Sandhill Crane Dance

You never know what’s going to transpire to make it a good day to be a photographer.

And the Next Week……

And, the following week, on two different occasions, I was lucky enough to photograph more dancing sandhill cranes. Please notice the difference in the lighting. The golden glow comes from the morning sun. The others are taken under cloudy skies.

Photo of Sandhill Crane Dancing


Photo of Sandhill Crane Dancing

Photo of Dancing Sandhill Cranes

untitled-8073 untitled-8071 Photograph of Sandhill Cranes Dancing untitled-8059

Photo of Sandhill Crane

Photographing Sandhill Cranes in Flight

Sandhill Cranes in Michigan

Late last Fall, we went with some friends to watch thousands of sandhill cranes congregate at the Baker Sanctuary, near Battle Creek, Michigan. Every year, cranes stop at this sanctuary briefly before they continue south. It was glorious.

I had my camera, but the distance was too great for my equipment to get a worthwhile shot. I watched other photographers with much heftier lenses get their shots.

Sandhill cranes are an impressive sight. They are huge birds; five feet tall with wings that span six to seven feet. I used to confuse them with the great blue heron – but the art of bird photography forces you to be more observant. The great blue heron is smaller with no red forehead and it curls its neck close to its body when it flies. Cranes extend their necks when flying.

A Glorious Spectacle to Photograph

By far, the most fascinating part of watching sandhill cranes is when they dance. I’ve seen them engage in this ritual throughout the season. I love it when they bow and then leap into the air and throw branches and sticks with their beaks. Quite the spectacle.

Capturing Sandhill Cranes During Take Off and Landing

Although I’ve yet to capture sandhill cranes dancing, I have had some success at getting good photographs of these marvelous birds.

On a very gray Michigan morning, I observed dozens of sandhill cranes feeding in a cut farm field near my home. The birds were far enough off that I was not perceived as a threat, but close enough that I could reach them with my longest lens. I was able to get out of the car and set up my tripod in the field nearest to the road.

I did not observe any of the ritual dancing in the 3 hours or so that I was there. Quite a few of the cranes were coming and going, much of it right over my head. So I focused my attention on capturing these beautiful birds in flight.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight
2 Sandhill Cranes in Flight ISO1000; f/4.5; 1/2500 Second

Tracking Movement with the Camera

Tracking a moving target while keeping the lens in focus is difficult. Once the shutter release is pressed half way down, the camera must complete the  following functions before it will allow the photographer to complete the shot:

  1. Light Metering
  2. Image stabilization (assuming there is an image stabilizer on your lens)
  3. Focus

So, after you complete one shot and press the shutter button to take the next one, the camera automatically goes thru the process of metering, stabilizing and refocusing before you can take the next shot. Admittedly all these functions happen in seconds, but sometimes in the world of bird photography, that is just not fast enough.

Back Button Focusing

Back button focusing is a very useful option to track and continuously focus on flying birds. Using this function lightens the load on the shutter release while at the same time, allows the photographer to track focus faster and more accurately, especially when your subject is moving erratically.

Simple Procedure to Separate Auto Focus from the Shutter Button

Almost all DSLRs allow the photographer to separate the auto focus from the shutter release, and have for many years. Once you find this function on your camera, you can start practicing. It’s easy.

Simply focus on your subject, hold down the back focus button with your thumb and get ready to press the shutter release with your fore finger when the peak action starts.

The camera will continually focus on the subject, and the shutter will not try to focus before taking the photo. This means no half pressing the shutter button over and over again to re focus. Once the subject stops moving, let go of the back button focus and use the shutter button to focus as you did before.

Be Prepared

Things go very fast when your target starts moving. A tripod is essential here to help you pivot the lens as needed and track the action. Before you start shooting, make sure your settings are optimal – including the settings for focus tracking (AI Servo on Canon Cameras) and continuous (rather than single shot) autofocus shooting.

And most importantly, be sure that you have confirmed that your shutter speed is set high enough to capture in flight birds.

Adding a Little Color to the Gray Sky

I decided to liven up the background in the first photo by adding a little color. I used Lightroom to put a bluish/pink vignette in the four corners of the photo. The second photo of a sandhill crane coming in for a landing (see below) more accurately shows the dull gray of the morning sky.

Sandhill Crane in Flight and About to Land
Sandhill Crane Coming in For A Landing
ISO 1000; F4.0; 1/3200 second

I’m hoping that the next time I head out to that field with my camera, the sandhill cranes will perform their playful dance for me.