One of the things I enjoy the most about birding and bird photography is the complete unpredictability. There are days I’ll go out, thinking I’ll come home with many photos, given where I was going and what time of year it was. Then I’ll come home nearly empty handed. On other days, I’ll try to squeeze in a very short trip close to home, and I’ll come back with photos of something completely new.
Today was one of the latter days. I went birding this morning, just planning on spending an hour or two west of Sioux Falls. The western part of Minnehaha County has a lot of wetlands and lakes, and I thought I’d see if any shorebirds, waterfowl, wading birds, or gulls were around. At Weisensee Game Production Area, the first sight that was obvious were about 100 American White Pelicans wheeling in the sky, about to land on the water. As I got closer however, something else caught my eye. A Sandhill Crane had been standing on the shore right next to the road, and had flown up and landed a bit further up the shoreline.
I had photos of Sandhill Cranes from the Platte River in Nebraska (the famous spring hotspot), from Alaska, from Wisconsin, and from Yellowstone. But I didn’t have any photos of Sandhill Cranes in South Dakota. In my part of the state, right next to the Iowa and Minnesota border on the east, we simply don’t get many Sandhill Cranes coming through. I’ve seen them on the rare occasion in the spring, but on the handful of times I’ve seen them here, it’s always been a small flock that was just flying over. I’d never seen one actually on the ground in my part of the state. I was thus excited to see this guy, and wanted to try to photograph him.
He had flown about 50 yards away from the road, and I could see him poking along the shoreline of the lake. I parked the car and started to walk in his general direction, taking my time, moving low and slow, trying not to disturb him. The bird seemed unconcerned as I approached, and I was able to get some shots of him foraging on a little sandy bar sticking out into the water.
As I got closer though, I had another surprise. From just 20 feet in front of me, two more Sandhill Cranes rose up from the grass. They seemed to have been hunkered down in tall grass next to the water, perhaps trying to stay out of the very strong wind. They seemed as surprised to see me as I was surprised to see them! They immediately took off, flying up, and then directly over me. I was cursing my lack of preparedness a bit, because by the time I had the camera up and started taking shots, all I got were ”butt shots” of the pair flying away.
However, when I thought I’d blown my opportunity, I heard the 3rd Sandhill Crane from behind me. He had just taken off from his spot on the sandy area and started flying towards the other two birds. I couldn’t have asked for a better photo opportunity. He was headed north into a very strong wind, and thus wasn’t moving very fast. He was also moving past me just to the west, with the morning sun providing perfect lighting. He struggled with the wind, moving slowly, but eventually he did catch up to the 2 other Sandhills, with all three of them appearing to drop down into an agricultural field well to my north.
I didn’t try to find them after that, I’d already taken about 50 shots of the lone Sandhill Crane struggling against the wind. I had some other birding and photo successes in the short time I was out this morning, but the big surprise of the Sandhill Cranes certainly made my day.