I’ve been very fortunate over the past week as I had the opportunity to observe a newborn Sandhill Crane baby at his nest. This nest is in Melbourne, about an hour and a half drive for me. My friends who live there notified me when the baby was born (thanks Bill and Mike!). Only a corrupted Compact Flash card and bad weather kept me from running over to Melbourne that very night. I went at first light on the next day, the little baby’s first full day in the world. I was amazed at how close the nest is, and how special it was to share the time with the birds. So special that I took a vacation day the next day in order to return! Then I went back on my off-Friday. So today’s blog post is a special story of this little Sandhill Crane baby’s first week.
Day Two of the Sandhill Crane Baby’s Life
The first light of the morning hit the nest as Mom stood up and unceremoniously dumped Baby onto the grasses of the nest. He shook himself off and stood up on those wobbly legs. My friends were all relieved, as they had worried about the baby since the parents hadn’t fed it much the previous day. Do Sandhill Cranes start feeding their babies immediately? I asked a nature expert, but I haven’t heard back yet.
The nest is located near the edge of a retention pond, by the parking lot of a small business. I’ve never been this close to a Sandhill Crane nest before! When I arrived, Baby was still tucked in under Mom, and Dad was standing protectively behind them. I loved the juxtaposition of the two adult birds. Dad wasn’t always so cooperative, though. Over the course of the morning we fussed at him a lot for stepping in front of the baby too much! His legs turn into two sticks in the background! :)
Mom and Dad are fun to watch with the baby. They are very gentle and protective, much more so than some birds. The baby never strays far from the parents. Often Mom sits with the baby, and Dad stays close by. Only once did he wander off to stretch his legs. They were both very patient as the little one figured out how to get their attention – by biting them! The first time he bit at Mom’s feet, she didn’t seem to realize it was him, so she gave him a gentle kick and sent him tumbling to the ground. As the morning went on, he kept nipping at her, and she put up with it quite well. I guess when you were born yesterday, you get away with things that older birds don’t…
Baby also bit at Mom’s feathers, and sometimes at her beak. In the shot below, Baby wanted to get under Mom’s wing, so he sat in front of her and tugged on her neck feathers.
I went to the nest with the goal of a shot with Mom and Baby together on the nest, with Baby tucked under the wing and doing a nose-to-nose with Mom. As often happens, the birds don’t always cooperate with a photographer’s intentions! Each time the baby popped out from under the wing, I was on the wrong side of the bird, or the head angles were wrong, or the light was bad. Finally towards the end of the morning I captured two images in a sequence of shots that I was able to merge in Photoshop to get my desired image. This “eye-to-eye” moment did happen, but I wasn’t quick enough to capture it in a single frame.
When baby birds are born, they often cannot regulate their own body temperatures. That’s why they cuddle under Mom – she helps them stay warm until they are big enough to maintain their own temperatures. This was a particularly windy morning, and I suspect Baby spent more time under the wing as a result of the breeze. It was such fun to try to capture his entrances and exits. Some of my friends got really amazing shots!
I put my 2x teleconverter on the Beast and tried to get some close-ups of the baby crane on the nest. The light levels were really low on this morning, and I didn’t want to use flash and startle the birds any more than the gaggle of photographers was already doing. But I got a decent portrait of our two-day-old…
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a thousand pictures, right? As much as I enjoy my still images, I also took some videos of the little crane, to share with my mom and with others who couldn’t make it to the nest themselves. I hope you enjoy this little collection of snippets from the morning:
Day Three Brings Sun to the Nest
I liked my images from Sunday, but I felt like I hadn’t quite captured my ideal image. A Sandhill Crane baby is only tiny like this for a short while, so I took an impromptu vacation day to return to the nest on Monday. It was fun to be there without the crowd. The baby got sporadic visits from the people who work at his business office, and it was sweet to see the interest they took in the little family. Apparently the business stopped mowing the grass in the vicinity of the nest in order to protect the birds. One man brought his wife and children to see the babies before school. The best part was that everyone really did respect this little family – there was no attempt to touch the birds or get too close. And I got plenty of room to move around and photograph to my heart’s content! :)
When I arrived at the nest on Monday, the birds were already awake and off the nest. They took Baby on his first walk, over the water and past the grasses and out into the yellow flowers! I don’t think the birds could quite understand how happy they made the photographers when they posed with the flowers. Baby was definitely getting fed on Monday. Both Mom and Dad pulled little insects out of the ground and gave them to him repeatedly. He gobbled them all up and trotted along to beg for more!
When I saw that the birds were off the nest, I was a little disappointed, since I was hoping for more under-the-wing and eye-to-eye shots. So I was very excited when Mom decided that Baby was tired, and dropped to the ground out in the open! Someone needs to teach these birds about sun angle, though. She had her head facing the sun, meaning that any eye-to-eye motions would have significant shadows cast on the birds’ faces. Silly birds. Baby ran for Mom’s wing, and she kept him in there for a nice long nap. Boy did the shutters click when he emerged!
Baby’s legs were a little less wobbly than the day before, and I could only imagine how tall the grasses must seem to him as he made his way through them. When he got tired, he just plopped down to take a little nap. It was amazing how well he blended in with the surrounding grasses. Who would have thought that a little orange bird could so easily be lost in a field of green grass? Nature’s camouflage amazes me sometimes! I liked it when he got tired, because Mom would invite him in under her wing. This next shot was when he was running over to her to take a nap.
Baby doesn’t yet have wings. He has little stubs that he frequently stretches, as if he’s trying to fly. Usually he stretches them away from the camera, but every once in a while he would cooperate and stretch them on a nice angle. Here he was running towards Mom – so cute!
Baby was a tad bit more independent on his third day. He’d get a few feet away from Mom and Dad. That was OK with me, because baby crane shots are better when they don’t have the parents’ legs in the image! Gotta love those yellow flowers…it was very hard to tear myself away from this little guy when it was time to leave.
Day Seven and Off For a Walk Around the Pond!
I went back to the nest on Friday to visit the Sandhill Crane baby, now seven days old. Wow had he gotten bigger! He was now about as big as the Sandhill Crane colts at Circle B when the parents first bring them up onto the trail. What a difference a few days make!
Baby was still under Mom on the nest when I arrived. Debbie and I laid down to watch, and we invited Baby to come out as soon as he pleased! I was ready when Mom stood up, and I fired a burst to capture the moment when Mom unceremoniously dumped Baby onto the nest. I guess it’s hard to stand up when you have someone curled up inside your wings -but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the little guy as he fell down to the nest with a plop!
After the birds left the nest, they made their way quickly up through the grasses and over to the grassy flat area. They covered in five minutes the entire area that they had traveled on Baby’s third day! The parents were feeding the baby constantly – insects, worms, all sorts of little tidbits. No wonder Baby has been growing so fast! I was very happy when the birds stopped over by the flowers during breakfast. I was using my new groundpod and loving the results. It’s so comfortable to stay low when the frying pan supports the camera!
One of the things that’s interesting about photographing these birds is that they close their eyes a lot. Birds have an extra eyelid called a nictitating membrane. It’s the whitish thing that sometimes covers their eyes. Probably not a bad thing to have when your little baby nips at you in the eye to get your attention! But I was glad to use a high frame rate because these birds seemed to have the membrane over their eyes more frequently than any other birds I’ve photographed. (No, I wasn’t using flash and startling them, either.) By using the rapid fire mode, I was ready for action, and I also got images with eyes open! Speaking of quick action, the little baby was exercising his little stubby winglets often. Fans of the Phoebe Allen hummingbird website call this wing-ercising, and I think that’s a very appropriate term here!
Baby liked to stretch his legs, too. He’d be walking along and then just kick his back leg out. It was cute. Usually I got him sideways, but when I was reviewing my images, I got this back shot that really cracked me up. Rich says he looks like a karate kid!
The parents took Baby for a long long walk on this last morning. They circled the entire retention pond, and even took Baby across the street for a little side trip. He didn’t like it when a delivery truck came by, and he ran behind a tree. Mom and Dad got him back to the pond after that. They paid a visit to the office building, and we were told that the birds sometimes knock on the windows to say good morning to the people! Even the mailman stopped and said good morning to the little family. As the sun rose higher in the sky, I reluctantly dragged myself away. My last image of the little family had Baby waving goodbye…