Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year's Eve with the Cranes!

The other day Melinda suggested closing out 2011 with a day trip to Whitewater Draw. We had talked about it for a couple weeks, so we finally pulled the trigger on the drive, just over a 2 hours to the southeast of Tucson. We've been there at least once per year for the last few years, and have never been disappointed - there are always sandhill cranes there over the winter months, sometimes in excess of 20,000! The only variable is the amount of water the management allows to flood the area - when the water level is high, the bird count seems higher and they hang out closer to viewing areas. This year the water level appeared pretty low, and we were guessing just over 10,000 cranes.

Some viewers go before dawn for the mass ascension, when they all take off for their daytime feedings in nearby fields. Generally not being early risers, we typically arrive mid-afternoon and observe their arrival from feeding when huge numbers fill the twilight sky. We arrived about 3:30 and pretty much had the place to ourselves - only a couple other cars there. They came and went into the evening, but there were never more than 3 or 4 cars parked at any one time.

After getting some shots of the closest cranes, we went looking for other targets. We didn't find any of my favorites, the vermilion flycatcher this trip. Just before sunset though we spotted a couple yellow-headed blackbirds. And then the floodgates opened! A huge tornado-shaped cloud of blackbirds reached from the ground till out of sight a few thousand feet up. There was an orgy of activity in the reeds in the growing darkness - we estimated about 5,000 of them, which we watched until it was too dark to see them anymore.

After going to the car to get another layer of clothes on and switching to faster optics for shooting in darker conditions, we went back out in hopes of swarms of cranes against the sky. With the smaller numbers, we didn't really see clouds of them this trip, but inspired by previous trips where I've caught the cats-eye effect in their eyes using the flash, I took a few flash pictures. After guessing at the focus, I tried using the flash with my 200mm at F/2.8 and shot at some moving shapes in the dark. Amazingly, a couple of them came out pretty well and are shown here. I still caught the cats-eye effect from their eyes, but they were close enough to illuminate them, even with the on-camera flash.

As the last traces of twilight faded in the west, we headed for home, pausing in Benson for dinner at the Horseshoe Cafe. It was Melinda's first time there, and we both enjoyed ribeye steaks there, shutting the place down on New Year's Eve (they close at 8pm). We got home about 10pm to some hungry cats, but I'm glad we were back to calm them down when the fireworks started at Midnight. Happy New Year!

1 comment:

David A. Harvey said...

Nice shots! I gotta go back down there - pretty cool environs. Thanks for sharing.