Touch down

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Every year I make a trip to a small wetlands outside of Lodi to watch migrating sandhill cranes make their evening arrival to the small field by the side of the road. With less water to flood the wetlands because of the drought I was unsure how many cranes would be coming to roost in early October so with two bags of camera gear I headed to the Isenberg Crane Reserve to watch an evening arrival.

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A visit to watch the cranes is special with the sight of hundreds of these ungainly birds wheeling in circles waiting for their turn to touch down. As sunset approaches the waves of birds grows and the air is filled with the crackling of their calls. The cranes spends most of the day foraging in neighboring fields before arriving to spend the night huddled together in the wetland.

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The birds evening arrival causes some problems shooting. As dusk approaches to maintain a high enough shutter speed to capture their flight I have to continuously increase the ISO setting. The higher ISO setting induces some noise to the image so the tradeoff of higher shutter speed to more noise has to be considered. Since the cranes tend to roost from back to front in the field the longer the telephoto lens the better. I packed my 300mm f.4.0 lens and 1.4 extender that gives me an effective focal length of over 600mm with a f5.6 aperture on cameras with 1.6 crop factor sensor. As darkness falls the small aperture calls for an ISO setting of 10,000 to get the shutter speed up to motion –stopping setting.

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The hardest thing about photographing the cranes is patience. The cranes arrive slowly and there distance from the fence line can be frustrating. As darkness falls across the wetlands the cranes increase and numbers and the landings reach closer to the fence line. Colors change and fade rapidly in the sky and sunset hues can make for spectacular background. As dusk falls the deep indigo in the sky casts a blue shade on the landscape. Focusing is a challenge in the dim light and autofocus struggles in the scenery lacking sharp contrasts.

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The cranes arrival and landing to the last light take a little more than half and hour. It seems as if sometimes I wait for long periods for something to happen as I scan the horizon for the first signs of the cranes and other times I can’t keep up the incoming flights circling for a landing. All too soon it is over and as I pack my gear all I can hear is the calls from thousands of cranes nestled in for the night somewhere in the darkness before me.

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I have made a decision to visit the crane reserve every month from now to the end of the year once at sunset and once at sunrise. I never tire of the sights and sounds of the cranes and look forward to capture more of their beauty in flight.