BirdWatching is pleased to showcase this collection of photos of Sandhill Cranes taken this spring along Nebraska’s Platte River. They come to us from our friends at the nonprofit Crane Trust, headquartered in Wood River, Nebraska. — Matt Mendenhall, senior editor
Every year, nearly 600,000 Sandhill Cranes leave their wintering grounds spread throughout the southern United States and Mexico as they begin a journey to their nesting grounds as far north as Siberia. At the neck of their hourglass-shaped migration, spanning thousands of miles, the cranes reach the Big Bend Region of the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.
Each crane spends roughly three weeks in the area, which is crucial to the migration of the species. And because the birds are in a condensed area, the spring stopover along the Platte is the greatest annual concentration of any crane species in the world.
During the days, the cranes forage for food, putting on 20 percent more body weight, which will be needed for nesting. In the evenings, they roost in groups, often in the tens of thousands, on shallow sandbars in the Platte River to protect themselves from land-based predators. The nightly return to the river, and the departure the following morning, combined with the incredible concentration of cranes make for a viewing spectacle unlike any other.
Located in the midst of this great migration and protecting 10,000 acres of natural habitat is the Crane Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization that has been around for nearly 40 years. For the past six years, guests have visited the Crane Trust to take part in a VIP Sandhill Crane viewing experience unlike any other. Guests are invited to immerse themselves in the prairie through on-site lodging in the trust’s own cottages, catered meals, and private guided viewing opportunities from comfortable blinds.
This year, the Crane Trust took this VIP experience and applied it to a sold-out photography workshop — the first of its kind in the area. The all-inclusive workshop gave participants the chance to focus strictly on taking incredible images and working on their photography skills, while the logistics of lodging, meals, and transportation were all arranged and provided for by the Crane Trust.
Each morning and evening, nine participants hailing from four states and one other country joined expert instructors Cheryl Opperman and Rick Rasmussen in photography-specific blinds. The blinds overlooked one of the largest roosts on this region of the Platte. Under the cover of darkness, the instructors led participants into and out of the blinds, allowing them to shoot close-up photos of crane behaviors and flocks in natural habitat.
In the mornings, the custom-built blinds provided an opportunity for participants to capture elaborate Sandhill Crane displays under great light. In the evenings, thousands of cranes filled the scene as they returned to the river, complete with stunning sunsets as a backdrop.
Classroom sessions were held in the afternoons. These included instruction on a variety of photography techniques as they specifically related to photographing cranes, as well as a lesson about Sandhill Crane biology and behavior, which gave photographers specific actions to look for as they photographed. Instructors also spent individual time with participants, providing advice and assistance as they sorted and edited photographs taken during previous shooting sessions. Crane Trust staffers were also available throughout the workshop to talk about the conservation, land-management, and biology and research work of the organization.
The five-day workshop culminated with an opportunity for participants to showcase their favorite photos at a special workshop art show hosted at the Crane Trust’s Nature and Visitor Center, which opened its doors to more than 30,000 visitors throughout the month of March. The show was open to the public and was enjoyed by countless visitors throughout the day.
Now that each of the workshop participants has returned home and the cranes have left Nebraska to continue their journey, we’re happy to share some of the best photos from the week with the readers of BirdWatching magazine. — Ben Dumas, excursion manager, Crane Trust
Cranes in the Cornhusker State
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