Sandhill Cranes Nesting in Michigan

Sandhill Cranes at Phyllis Haehnle SanctuaryIt had been five years since I first photographed sandhill cranes returning in the evening to their nesting site in Mud Lake Marsh.  This was at the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary near Jackson, Michigan, a Michigan Audubon Society preserve.  That was my first real exposure to photographing birds in the wild … if you exclude seagulls.

Sunrise at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

6:30 a.m.

Sunrise at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

6:45 a.m.

Sunrise at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

6:55 a.m.

Sandhill Cranes at First Light at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

7:15 a.m.

Getting Started

This year, National Photography Workshops in Ann Arbor arranged a morning sandhill crane photo shoot at the same location.  I joined eight or nine crazy amateurs at around 6:00 on a chilly November morning to await sunrise an hour away.  Stars were bright and many in the clear sky as we started setting up our gear, but by 6:30, they started disappearing as the sky lightened.  At 6:45 we could start to see the marsh and get our bearings to search for the soon-awakening cranes.  Ten minutes later and we could clearly see the marsh and lake.  Shortly after, the cranes began honking as they awoke and took flight.  We caught our first sight of these red and white-faced birds at around 7:15, 15 minutes before sunrise.

I’m a bit of a gear junkie so, for me, this early morning adventure was well-timed, as I had recently added a larger telephoto lens to my arsenal.  It was the 500 mm focal length that I mentioned in my 2014 blog on hawks.  Now was my chance to learn the challenges of following birds while handholding a five-pound, 14″ lens.  The bulk of the shooting took place over about an hour, and I was feeling the effects of the weight by then; and later that evening, my back was ready for the heating pad.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight

Here is a view that starts to show the advantage of the longer lens.

Sandhill Crane at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

Sandhill crane heading out at 7:30 a.m.
200-500mm @500 mm, 1/1250 s, f/5.6, ISO 4000

Later in the morning, we left the nesting site and drove to neighboring corn fields, which is where the cranes head to look for food.  The cranes below were spooked by our cars and took off to find a quieter setting a bit further away.

Sandhill Crane at Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary

Sandhill cranes feed in neighboring corn fields
200-500mm @410 mm, 1/2500 s, f/16, ISO 3200

You can see more of these grand birds in my Sandhill Crane gallery.  While I captured many decent images of the sandhill cranes in flight, there is much more I can do to attain better sharpness and image quality.  That may be apparent to you if you maximize your browser window and click on the images to see them at a larger size.  It confirms for me that gear alone does not guarantee great photographs – ultimately, image quality derives from the photographer’s technique.   Feel free to post a comment and let me know what you think.

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