By Jim Lo Scalzo
When I first sought to photograph a feature package on Sandhill cranes in central Nebraska, I thought it would be a welcome respite from covering politicians at podiums in Washington, DC. I was only half right.
Every March, up to a half million of these large birds pause in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley to rest and refuel during their annual migration north to the Arctic. During the day, they feed in farmers’ fields on last year’s corn and are difficult to approach. But in the evening, they gather in groups, called sieges, and sleep in the braids of the Platte River—a defense against coyotes and other predators.
Wilderness groups such as Audubon and The Nature Conservancy have bought up much of these riverbanks to help protect the birds—and they rent out a handful of one-person blinds (wooden boxes, 8-feet-long, 6-feet wide, and just 4-feet tall) with holes on one side from which the birds can be pictured.
However, the blind rental comes with a serious—perhaps even silly—number of restrictions. You are not allowed to drive out to the blinds on your own; instead, to minimize disturbance to the birds, the staff drive you out to your blind at 5 in the afternoon (well before the birds land), and they don’t pick you up until 9 the next morning (well after they’ve left). And in between you are not allowed to leave the box. That means you’re spending the night outside in winter—the dirt floor your bed, a bucket your bathroom. Should the birds not land near your blind, you have no recourse but to try again the next night.
In March 2014, North American Photo Director Matt Campbell gave me the go-ahead to visit the area. On my first night in a blind, I unrolled my sleeping bag, mounted a 400 2.8 on a tripod, and waited. And waited. And waited.
Well past dusk I heard a terrific racket overhead, and watched the silhouettes of thousands of squawking cranes land several hundred of yards away, out of photo range. I was hosed. I slid into my sleeping bag, cold and frustrated, trying to make a pillow of one of my coats. It was 28 degrees, and I was just drifting off when a mouse ran across my face.
In the coming nights my luck improved somewhat, though with the birds not landing until well after dusk I found myself shooting increasingly desperate exposures: 30 seconds, three minutes, five minutes. In the end I felt my coverage was incomplete; Campbell agreed to let me give it another go the following year. So last week I again flew to Omaha, drove to the center of Nebraska, and spent three more nights in those wooden torture boxes.
Some evenings and mornings worked, some didn’t. And therein lies the aggravation, and the fun—for me at least—of wildlife photography. Unlike photo-ops in DC, which run on schedule and look precisely as you expect, making pictures of cranes required a less predictable element: luck. And if I was short on it more often than I wished, the breadth of a feature package—less the coverage of a single event than an accumulation of minor successes—helped cover those cold nights when the pictures I wished to make were just out of reach.