The Great Journey in Photography

About-The Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes Landing at Bosque Del Apache

700mm f5.6 640iso 1/1,250sec

For about a year that I have been studying the Sandhill Crane culminating in a trip to Bosque Del Apache to photograph them in large numbers. During that time I have grown rather fond of these characters. They have distinctive behaviors that make them unique and their large size and willingness to be close to humans makes them just fun to be around.

One large flock, I believe it is the Northern flock migrates every year from Montana in places like Red Rock Lakes South to New Mexico and Mexico at places like Bosque Del Apache and along the Rio Grande Valley. Many others hang out on the Platte River in Ohio and the sandhills of Nebraska. Hence the name Sandhill Crane. They spend the Winter feeding and regain about twenty-five percent of their body weight lost during migration these months in preparation of moving North for Spring and Summer to raise their young. They feed on corn and aquatic plants for the most part but their favorite food, at least in the Rio Grande Valley, is the Chufa Sedge. They use their long beaks to drill as much as six inches into the soil to get at the chufa nut which is very similar to a grape nut for its high nutrition value. They are large birds, the male will get up to twelve pounds and have a wingspan of almost seven feet. The Sandhills mate for life and when they migrate back to breed they typically will only produce one or two offspring and those offspring learn to fly in about ten weeks. Since the Sandhills produce so few young they are very protective of their nest keeping other cranes at a distance and employing the “broken wing” decoy to distract other predators like the coyote. Normally grey in color, the Sandhills in the Red Rock area turn rust brown. It is not a change  in feather color but rather from the soil and water rich in minerals that stain their entire bodies from preening. These birds are very social too. When feeding they are constantly calling out. It is thought to be a communication between mates for the most part. Females call out twice (so typical) for every one male call making their distinctive “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” sound. They also have a distinctive courtship ritual called “The dance of the cranes” where the open their wings and hop up and down. This is also thought to be a stress reliever allowing them to release excess energy, in any case it is also the reason why they earned the nickname “preacher bird” a long time ago. Even though they only live for about fifteen to twenty years old the Sandhill lineage goes back as far as the dinosaur making them a true prehistoric species.

Here are a few more fun facts about the Sandhill Crane:
The “intention pose” is that funny stance they make before the flock takes off. They stretch their necks and position the body more horizontal waiting for the signal to depart. That is the warning to all photographers to be at the ready.
They preen for two reasons. The first being the obvious, to clean themselves but also do it as a sign to another aggressive crane. The preening allows the threatened bird to see the aggressor from different angles and send out a signal to say “I’m watching you” in hope the aggressive bird will back down.
Immature cranes have more gold in the wings and foreheads are gold/brown instead of red.
Their main predator, the coyote actually plays a vital role in the survival of the species. First they consume the sick and diseased birds which prevents illness from running through the flock and their occasional interruptions in the crane feeding forces them to move around regularly prevent them from over feeding an area that would render it barren in future years.

One of my favorite videos about the Sandhill Crane is from New Mexico State University available on YouTube. It is over an hour-long but is well worth the watch.

As always thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the picture and the info. You can see more of my Sandhill Crane photos here.

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