At this time of the year, only Mardi Gras draws a bigger crowd.
Each spring some 600,000 visitors pile into the braided channels of the Platte River in central Nebraska. They’re three feet tall, noisy and weigh just nine pounds. They’re the sandhill cranes, and they are epic in every way, a species that’s millions of years old, yet still survives in flocks big enough to block the sun.
So if you’re a photographer working on assignment for National Geographic Magazine, just how do you even begin to cover what is one of the biggest wildlife spectacles on Earth?
You get down, get dirty and get waterproof.
These cranes use basically the same places in the river to roost each night. They fly in about dusk and leave after daybreak. That’s when my team and I get to work.
A series of remote cameras have been sealed inside waterproof housings. Radio triggers are attached. Each unit is then shoved down into a series of sandbars on the river channel. Mud, sticks and feathers are placed as camouflage to hide whatever remains sticking up.
Fifty yards away, we crawl inside a specially built, 4 × 8-foot blind on the river bank. Staring out at a scene that will begin to fill with birds about dusk, we’ll concentrate on the location of each camera, waiting, fingers crossed, hoping for a few chances to fire off a picture or two before sundown, before it gets too dark to see anymore.
It’ll be a long night. To stay warm, we’ll wear everything in our closet and settle in, hoping that the river doesn’t rise overnight. The housings are buried so close to the water line that there’s a very good chance that they could all be lost should the river come up. This is risky business.
The harvest for all this effort? Believe it or not, it’s mostly frustration.
Though there are a lot of birds, the river is still a very big place. The odds of them coming close enough to the cameras, within a few feet or so, are not terrific. So we let the cameras run, and run and run some more. We let them run for nearly six weeks.
When the river is empty around lunchtime each day, we put on our waders and go out to check the five lumps in the sandbars. We’re relieved to see that they’re not flooded, that all still work. We can only check and reset them at midday because that’s when all the birds are out feeding on waste grain in surrounding cornfields.
We set them all again, head back to the blind and wait some more. The waiting can get rough. The wind howls. It’s often below freezing at night. We sleep in the blind, we eat in the blind, we even use a bucket for a bathroom in the blind, all to keep watching those cameras whenever it’s light enough and the birds are on the river.
The photos you see here reflect the effort of at least six different people who took turns manning the remote triggers, morning and night, for weeks on end.
Eventually, with enough patience, we get lucky. On a handful of evenings, for a few precious minutes, we’re surrounded by thousands of birds preening, drinking, calling and dancing. Through our cameras, we feel we are finally part of the flock.
In the end, though, it wasn’t a remotely fired camera that took the photo that was published in National Geographic’s animal migrations story last November. Instead, it was a picture taken from an elevated blind, with me staring through a long lens, chattering my teeth on a morning that was well below freezing and very windy. The rest of the work, as they say, ended up on the cutting-room floor.
And so it goes. When photographing the sandhill cranes of Nebraska, patience is truly a virtue. A pair of very warm gloves doesn’t hurt either.