It’s All About the Sandhills
Maybe not all about, but the Sandhill Crane is the main draw to the Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge every year. I am not going to write about general facts for the Sandhill today, I did that a while back and you can read more about that at “About the Sandhill Crane”. In this post I want to speak more of how they operate on the Bosque and how they can be best photographed. There is great reason to be attracted to these prehistoric creatures, they have unique look and with their gregarious antics come off very much like cartoon characters. I wish the birds felt the same way but the truth is that like all birds everything they do has purpose and boils to down to one of three things, food, shelter, and procreation.
The Sandhill count has been dropping at the Bosque in recent years for the most part from severe droughts. This past December in the first week there were an estimated 11,000 Sandhills visiting the reserve, last year at the same time there were over 13,000. By mid December 2012 there were less than 8,500. As always the population hits it maximum during the last week of November and the first of December. The birds migrating south stay in one prime location for two or three weeks at a time to feed and build energy to endure the rigors of winter. Some of the Sandhills will fly further south into Mexico but many of the will stay the winter on the Bosque when in late winter head back north for the spring.
High up on my shot list was the “Dance of the Cranes”. As part of their antics Sandhills sometimes hop up and down flapping their wings and let out the cry “Kar-ooo”. They are also often referred to as “Preacher Birds” because it looks like a reverend addressing his congregation. Exactly why they perform the dance is anything but clear. Most believe that it is a mating ritual, others say that it is just a physical release of pent-up energy. Some will tell you it is nothing more than a signal to a group of birds that it is time to leave and one crazy even says it might be an instinctual action to release themselves from frozen waters of a pond. Practice makes perfect.
Unfortunately, the dance was a very tough shot. The photo above is one of my better efforts telling me that the dance just might be at the top of my shot list for many years to come. This season photographing the Sandhills boiled down to really only one good spot, that being the second crane pool on highway 1. The corn fields, actually the entire farm loop was really dismal. A conversation I had with one of the rangers told me that because there were so many human visitors on the reserve this year the big birds were pressured out to the farmers corn fields. In an effort to relieve pressure they closed the auxiliary farm loop early so the Sandhills could feed on the reserve without human interaction. Back at the crane pools it was evident that the number of birds was down. The once crowded pools were not full but still active with a large number of birds. The weather was so spectacular I am sure it was a major reason why so many visitors were on the reserve. The main pool was great for sunrise, geese and the blast off but you needed to make a quick trip to the crane pool to catch the big birds in beautiful light taking off for the fields. Sun and breeze most of the time favored hills and some clear sky in the background making for some magazine cover images.
It seemed like clouds returned every afternoon right around those same hill to light up the sky when the birds returned for the evening. Get there early enough and you will also catch thousands of snow geese clearing out to make room for the Sandhills. Read more about the Sandhills return to the pool at “Cranes in the Fire”.