An Exceptional Day

I saw a group of four Whooping Cranes yesterday. What a surprise! I could hardly believe my luck.

I was on a photo excursion/hike at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, had been outside for the better part of an hour already, and was nearing the end of the trail. I was a little tired (I am so out of shape it’s ridiculous) and I came really close to walking right by them without even realizing what they were! Horicon Marsh is heavily populated by Great Egrets, which are very beautiful, large, white birds, but they are so common that I’ve gotten kind of blasé about them sometimes. So when I saw four large white birds over a ways along the trail, that’s what I initially assumed they were, and went about my business shooting wide angle landscape shots (I actually have a couple of shots with small, white specks, i.e. Whooping Cranes, in the background, heheheh). I didn’t even have the right lens on my camera to look at them—for the day, I had decided to use the D40 kit lens, complete with broken autofocus. However, I was near the end of the hike, and was feeling like my kit lens project had been a success, so I decided I would take a break from deep landscape shots and grab a shot of those four big white birds over there, even though I knew they were too far away to make a good photo.

It hadn’t occured to me that Great Egrets tend to be pretty solitary, so what were four of them doing together? And weren’t they a little bit too large to be Great Egrets? And where was all the cool neck flexion and posture stuff you usually see with an egret? And what was the deal with the black on the wings? That didn’t seem right. And yet, the truth of what I was seeing still didn’t dawn on me, until I had switched lenses, zoomed in on them and realized they couldn’t possibly be egrets. My next thought was White Pelicans, but that only flashed through my mind for a moment—they were not bulky enough, and didn’t have the gigantic beak apparatus that pelicans have, so that idea was obviously wrong. I also saw a quite distinctive dark facial marking. This is actually reddish, but from that distance, on a cloudy day and through my small viewfinder, it just looked an indistinct “dark” color, compared to the surrounding white. Still, though, it was a clear indicator of what I was looking at, as was the way they walked, very much like a Sandhill Crane.

You have to understand, when one doesn’t expect to ever see a Whooping Crane ever, having not just one but four of them right there in plain sight is a little difficult to accept. So as I snapped excitedly away, knowing full well that the pictures would be mediocre at best (and not caring one bit!), my mind still hadn’t quite opened up to the idea that me, a basic birding nobody, had any business seeing such rare birds. Who the hell did I think I was, anyway? However, when they began to dance…well at that point there was no denying it, and I just about started to do a little dance myself! ;)

Regrettably, by the time they started dancing, they had moved behind some reeds, so I couldn’t see that part very well. I took a few shots of it anyway, just for documentation purposes. They didn’t turn out very well. The main body of shots was quite usable, if somewhat mediocre as I expected. I was too far away, with a lens renowned for mediocrity at its mere 200mm maximum length, and with only a six megapixel camera. But given these limitations, the photos turned out ok. I may even crop one of them to use as a banner photo for this blog! I haven’t decided yet. ;)

All in all, it was an exceptionally thrilling sighting! I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be the only time in my life I ever see these birds. They really are exceptionally beautiful. Here’s one sample shot, which honestly doesn’t do them justice:

Whooping Cranes

I have actually gone a bit nuts by posting a set of sixteen shots on my Flickr stream. They are the ones that I felt were at least moderately acceptable. Normally I’d want to focus more on quality of the photo, but with birds this rare, I figure who cares. So here is the whole freakin’ set. Enjoy! :)

I’ll almost certainly be back there next weekend, to see if I can spy them again. :)

Update: I just realized that I can post a link to a full-blown slideshow of the whole set. Why bother with all the tedious clicking around when you can just view the entire set, in large size? ;)

Finally, I have to add that I went back to that same spot on October 10th and saw the same four birds again! Like the first time, it was pretty surprising, and very nice to see. This time, the weather was sunny, and the sunlight on their pure, white feathers was really amazing. The only thing, though, is that this time they were even farther away than the first time, so the photos from that afternoon were only useful for identification and documentation purposes.

[post updated October 28, 2009]

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