Birds eye view

Just a day out and around.  Stopped by the International Crane Foundation to renew membership and check on the residents there.  It’s amazing what the efforts of a few people dedicated to a cause can produce over time.  Thanks to the work of the people in Baraboo and other locations we still have the opportunity to see whooping cranes in the wild (and in captivity for those wanting a non-threatening closer look).  The Foundation is starting a building program that will enlarge the areas for several of their crane species, giving visitors a more expansive view of these large birds.  If you’re ever in the area it’s a definite visit to learn how the recovery efforts are paying off and to enjoy some time wandering around the grounds.

Long lens close-ups

The Canada geese in the area are herding their goslings around showing them the ropes on survival.  It’s fun to watch the adults try to threaten a big car with hissing and advancing motion while the young blithely wander around poking their noses into everything.  In general, though, mom and dad keep the group together and moving in the same direction.

It was an overcast, rainy day and the goslings were in the tall grass, either stripping the water drops off the leaves or picking at the grass itself.

I was using a 300mm lens for my OM-1 film camera on my digital camera, shooting out the car window.  The geese were so close at times I had to wait until they walked out of my close-focus point.  It was great to be able to fill the image with the birds but handholding a long lens like this (and manually focusing) meant the images aren’t as sharp as I’d like.  Still, you can see details on them nicely.

Whenever the parents felt we’d gotten too close or had seen enough, they herded the goslings further into the grass.  With all the rain we’ve gotten the stems were tall enough to easily hide the young birds, although a few of them still were curious about all the fuss.

We expected to see sandhill cranes in this area as they use it for feeding and nesting.  And sure enough, we saw one walking along the side of the road in the grass.  He pretty much let us coast along beside him while he nosed around for bugs and periodically called out to see if anyone was in the area.  Although this was our only sandhill crane we did see a cousin.

At a nearby visitor’s center we heard a whooping crane had been sighted so we drove off in that direction hoping for the best.  Luckily, the bird was still in the field so we got to see one of our most endangered birds, just wandering around in a field behind a farm house.  What a great opportunity for us to see the “other” American crane.

We learned later whooping cranes have been transplanted to Wisconsin but the efforts are not going well.  The percentage of successful nesting and raising of young is very small.  One surprising issue is the black fly population, which harasses the adults so much they leave the nest and eggs behind.  A tactic managers are using is to get to the nest soon after the eggs are laid and remove them to be hatched by humans.  The birds will apparently lay more eggs later, which is after the black fly population drops off.  Sometimes even evolution needs a hand….

A few things about this image.  It’s an extreme crop of an image made with the 300mm lens resting on the window of my car so it’s nowhere as sharp as I’d wish for such a great occasion.  But, you use what you got as best possible.  Also, see the bird on the right?  From other images it’s obviously a crane but I can’t find anything online about whooping or sandhill cranes being this black at any stage in their life.  Either it’s been rolling in mud or it’s some other type of plumage.  Finally, if you look closely behind the white whooping crane, about an inch in this image, you’ll see a little orange spot.  This is the head of a chick that followed the adult around.  At the distance we were from the birds it was invisible – I only noticed it when zooming in on the images in Photoshop.  Hopefully this will be one of the chicks that make it to adulthood!

Old friends and new tools

When we lived in Michigan a pair of sandhill cranes nested each year in the shallow end of the lake below our house.  Their loud calls were the heralds of spring for us and one year they paraded around their new chick for the neighborhood to admire.  We came to love these ancient, tall birds being a part of our community.

Living in Nebraska sandhill cranes are an equally important part of spring in the center of the state.  The thousands of them migrating north draw in equal thousands of tourists to the Grand Island/Kearney area to glimpse the crowd of birds grazing in the fields near the Platte and resting overnight in the shallow river.

Little did we realize that Wisconsin is also a crane haven, being the primary nesting habitat for greater sandhill cranes that migrate each year from central Florida to hatch their young around the Great Lakes.  Gradually we saw them in the fields, then a large group of them in a small lake.  Finally, biking near the Horicon Marsh wildlife refuge, we were able to get close enough to admire them again.

I’ve seen cranes in cornfields, in marshes, in rivers and at the base of mountains but this is the first time I’ve seen them in a field of green.  It’s a nice background for their coloration and certainly makes it easier to spot them!  Very nice to see and hear them again.

I’ve been using the NIK plug-ins for Photoshop for so long I stopped looking at the filters offered there.  Today I had a chance to see a new addition for CS6 (I think).  It gives the ability to convert a photograph into an oil painting.  Well, at least into an image that reminds you of an oil painting.

Here’s a scene from this past weekend.  I wanted to catch the sun breaking through the clouds and this happened to be the composition that got the best lighting.  It’s not the most interesting composition, just playing around with light and lines and textures.  But it did seem to me a good candidate for less detail and more “painterly” appearance.  Enter the Oil Brush filter in Photoshop.

A little adjustment for saturation, reduction of contrast detail and application of the Oil Brush, and this is what popped up on my screen.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMakes a much more interesting image, don’t you think?  Now I have to find more of my photographs to use this own.  Next, see how it prints.


Spring’s soaring spirits

“…falling so gracefully, like autumn leaves silhouetted against a river set afire by the sunset…” – Michael Forsberg, On Ancient Wings


Something you have to experience in person, surrounded by sounds of whispering wings and raucous cries.  Looking for an end of the procession of flying, gliding, soaring creatures and realizing they continue to come.  Seeing their forms against the bright water and realizing the sandbar moves because it is composed of living birds jostling for position.  Admiring their graceful landing approaches, legs outstretched and wings cupped, dropping at the last minute on the spot they selected from yards away.

It’s easy to become enthralled by it all, harder to understand why.

Vanguards of the storm

ISO 100, 169mm, 1/500 sec., f/4

Avid crane watchers go to great lengths to station themselves in prime locations along the Platte, waiting for birds to fly in for their evening roost in the water.  The vast majority of riverfront property is private and inaccessible so the few places where people and organizations have set up blinds are usually in great demand, which helps limit the interruptions as cranes settle in for the night.  It’s a great thing to experience, although mostly for the sound since the birds usually roost so late in the day there’s very little light for my type of photography.  Because of this I usually don’t schedule time in the blinds unless someone else wants to give it a try.

I do like hanging around the bridges over the river, though, to watch the clouds of birds come cruising by on their way to more secluded spots.  As it turns out, though, not that all the birds are so private.  I stopped near a bridge on a fairly well traveled road just to listen and saw that sandbars only 100 yards upstream were to be the night’s resting spot for a few hundred cranes.  They were floating along the river, settling onto the sandbar and trading their usual evening gossip when I looked to the east and saw the cumulus clouds being lit up by the setting sun.  Coming across the face of the clouds were lines of cranes, all aiming for my little part of the Platte.

Grabbing my camera I knew there was enough light to handhold some shots, at least to get silhouettes.  The birds just kept coming, giving me my choice of individuals, pairs, small groups and large V’s of cranes all converging on these not-so-secluded sandbars and posing themselves against this glowing Nebraska sky.  It was great getting images of the birds against the clouds – so much more interesting than a plain blue background.

Cars crossing the bridge didn’t stop so I assumed they are locals, used to the sight of cranes and crane-watchers hanging around the river at sunset.  The cranes didn’t mind the cars, probably because they were making so much noise they didn’t notice them.  I’ve confirmed with other people who make this annual trek that by mid to late March the cranes are pretty much used to people and will ignore you as long as you keep your distance.  Early in the year just the sight of a car on the road will put them to flight – as the season moves into April they will wander the cornfields right next to the road, close enough to have their feathers ruffled by the passing cars.  Just don’t stop and forget about getting out of your vehicle.  The shape of humans will get them in the air, fussing the whole time about their interrupted meal.

Old dogs, new tricks

While in photo school one of our instructors kept returning to the same subject again and again – focusing on the back of the camera.  At first I thought he was talking about using the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder, but eventually I realized he was using a button other than the shutter release to activate the auto focus.  He went on and on about the virtues of using this method especially where focusing on one part of the composition and using another part for the exposure reading.  Several of my classmates switched to the method and a few seemed to like it better but I never found a body of reason to make the switch.  Maybe I’d found a way to use the shutter release to achieve what he was getting with two buttons.  Besides, after switching my camera over to that method I kept getting confused by forgetting how to focus.

Well, I finally got advice that convinces me to switch to this technique, but only for a specific application.  On my crane photo tour I kept getting really lousy images of flying birds; lousy in that they weren’t in focus.  I was using shutter speeds well over 1/2500 sec. and keeping the bird in the center of the viewfinder with smooth tracking but all the images kept looking soft or even fuzzy.  When I mentioned my frustration to one of our instructors, Dave Showalter, he asked some questions about my settings and then shared how he overcame a similar frustration.

What I learned from him almost instantly improved my flying bird images, increasing the keeper images from less than 5% to well over 50%.  Oddly, it involves using that “focus on the back of the camera” trick I’d discarded from school.  Basically, it appears my problem was focusing on the bird with the shutter release (push half-way down to activate the auto-focus) in single-focus mode.  In this mode the camera focuses, then locks the focus, takes the exposure reading, then fires the shutter.  The very small lag between the auto-focus engaging and locking and the rest of the sequence occurring was resulting in the initial focus getting “off” as the cranes flew forward in that time span.  The changes were simple.

Olympus, as most DSLR’s, has a continuous focus mode where the camera keeps adjusting the focus right until the shutter fires.  That’s the first change of setting.  Second, I can set the continuous focus mode (and only the continuous focus mode) to use the Automatic Focus Lock (AFL) button on the back of the camera.  Third, in continuous focus mode I changed from a single focusing point in the camera (I usually rely on the center one) to the full matrix focusing where all the focus points are engaged and the camera picks out what should be in focus.  With a bird flying against a mostly empty sky the camera goes right to the bird for focus, and in continuous mode, keeps adjusting the focus right to the point of shutter release.  With focus and exposure separate, I get much better percentages of sharp subjects as they move, and the exposure only when I actually release the shutter.  Sure, I have to use two fingers instead of one but Olympus’ placement of the two is easy for me to become comfortable with and more practice can only improve my two-finger-picking style.

How did it work?  Take a look.

This has to be one of the sharpest flying crane photographs I’ve ever made so I’m definitely keeping this setting on my camera.

The birds of autumn

Our love affair with sandhill cranes began in Michigan, when a pair lived on our lake each summer and wandered around our neighborhood grazing on everyone’s bird feeders.  They were the harbingers of spring, letting us all know by their loud squawks that they were back, bringing warmer weather with them.  Their cycle of leaving and returning grounded us in the seasons and made us feel more a part of our small lakeside community.

So imagine our pleasure after moving to Nebraska to discover half a million of them come through the state in the spring, stopping off to fatten up in the fields and wetlands on their way north.  Our pair is not a part of this migration; greater sandhill cranes come to Michigan from Florida whereas Nebraska’s lesser cranes come from Texas and points south.  Nonetheless, each year we revel in the sight and sound of these big birds passing through, remembering our Great Lake neighbors from years ago.

I’ve written about cranes before so why revisit the subject?  Well, while we were exploring Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border we discovered our timing coincided with other greater sandhill cranes migrating south to New Mexico.  Here we were in what appeared to be a high desert, in the middle of nowhere when much to our surprise, a corn field appeared next to a river.  A recently harvested corn field, full of tall, grey forms walking on stilts.  Rolling down the window we heard the traditional call of the sandhill crane as they gossiped among themselves.

250mm, ISO100, f/14, 1/160 sec

It’s a sound never forgotten once heard and very appropriate for that area – a prehistoric call echoing around the distant mountains that had probably heard similar sounds millions of years ago when the fossils it is famous for were laid down in the silt.  The image I made is unlike any other crane picture I’d seen.  The multicolored mountains as a backdrop to a familiar sight – big grey birds strolling through a cornfield on their way to a distant destination.