About the Whooping Cranes
Whooping cranes are a rare and endangered bird species. Only 836 whooping cranes exist in the world. There are 543 whooping cranes that breed at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and then spend their winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Each winter and each spring these cranes make the 2400 mile journey to Texas and back to Canada.
The whooping crane (Grus americana) is the tallest bird in North America with an average height of about 5 feet and a wingspan of 7.5 to 8 feet. These magnificent adult birds are white with a red crown, a long, dark, pointed bill, yellow eyes, and long, black legs. The tips of their primary feathers are black which are only visible while they are in flight. The whooping crane’s lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild.
The whooping crane juveniles are reddish-cinnamon which becomes mottled as they grow older. Juveniles will develop the snowy-white plumage by the end of the crane’s second summer. Both parents are involved in raising and feeding their young. Chicks will fledge at about three months old and will stay with their parents until the next breeding season. Whooping cranes gain sexual maturity at 3-4 years.
Traditionally, this crane species is migratory. Although, this Aransas Wood Buffalo flock is the only self-sustaining wild flock in North America at this time. They primarily live in mating pairs or small family groups that consists of the parents and usually one juvenile. Sometimes, the mating pair will have twins, but usually they will migrate with only one colt.
Their main form of communication is vocal communication which is a whooping sound. The whooping cranes are territorial as their calls are important. Their vocal communication is used to deter predators, warn of attack, and protect and care for the young. The male whooping crane will defend the family group’s territory and will often keep a watch out while they are feeding. Both the males and females will call out to defend their territory.
Photographing the Whooping Cranes
After learning about this self-sustaining wild flock of whooping cranes that winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), I became really interested in photographing these endangered birds. I was fortunate to be able to make a trip down to Texas this past December. I spent two and half days photographing these whooping cranes also known as whoopers.
To access the areas of where the whooping cranes feed at Aransas NWR, you will need to charter a boat or use a boat photo tour company such as Aransas Bay Adventures. I spent three mornings on a boat observing and photographing the whooping cranes in their habitat. The cranes I photographed at Aransas NWR were mostly two adults with a colt. Photographing the whoopers from the boat was made easy because the boat used was made specifically for photographers.
For photographing these cranes, I used my main camera and lens setup of my Canon EOS 6D Mark II DSLR camera and the Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens. In addition, I used my new mirrorless Canon EOS R7 camera with an adapter and the Tamron 18-400mm lens. Both of these setups, I hand held. The bow of the boat provided plenty of room for using a tripod, but I chose to hand hold my cameras.
Each day the weather conditions were different which gave me opportunities to photograph the cranes in different lighting conditions from cloudy to sunny. I was able to capture images of these birds as they moved along the shoreline or fields feeding, were in flight, or were wading in the water. I was very lucky to have good and warm temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s. Although, it was a bit chilly first thing in the morning especially before the sun came up.
In the afternoons of the first two days there in Texas, I was able to photograph the whooping cranes from a private photo blind on a private property. This opportunity gave me different looks of the whooping cranes feeding in a field and flying in and out of the field. In addition, there were sandhill cranes and deer subjects to photograph from the blind.
Again, I used the same camera and lenses but had the DSLR and Tamron 150-600mm G2 mounted on a tripod in the photo blind. I hand held the mirrorless camera and the Tamron 18-400mm lens. The animal tracking feature of the Canon EOS R7 was quite impressive, and I really enjoyed using this camera for flight photography. The R7 performed very well in non-flight action, too.
As a wildlife and nature conservation photographer, I enjoyed photographing this new bird species to me. It was a privilege to spend sometime observing and documenting the behaviors of this awe-inspiring crane. I came away from this in the field experience of photographing the whooping cranes with a little over 3,000 images. I am still culling through my images and processing them. All of these images in this post were processed this past week specifically for this blog post.
According to Journey North, one scientist estimated in 1860 there were only 1400 whoopers. Their population continued to decline to 15 or 16 cranes after the winter of 1941-42. The cranes decline in population was due to a variety of threats that included drainage of wetlands, conversion of grasslands to agriculture, and hunting. Today, because of the many conservation efforts made over the years, we see an increase in their population from 1941-42. But still, there is plenty of conservation work that must be done to keep this population increasing.
Nonetheless, this rare and endangered bird continues to have threats from human disturbance, freshwater shortages, illegal hunting, wetlands destruction, power lines collisions and the predation of their chicks and eggs. We need to help preserve and protect the whooping cranes and their wetlands habitat. A great way to support the whooping crane is to help preserve and conserve our wetland habitats.
I hope to be able to go back out to Aransas NWR again in the near future to photograph and observe more of the behaviors of the whooping cranes. I highly recommend a photo trip there especially if you are interested in birds.
Thank you for reading my Field Notes Blog, and I hope you will share this post with others.
Let’s preserve and conserve our natural world!!!
All the very best,
Copyright © 2023 Lori A Cash Conservation Photography, LLC
2 replies to “In the Field Photographing the Whooping Cranes”
Completely Awesome blog post! Fantastic pictures. You brought beautiful awareness to the cranes. Always appreciate your work and effort for wildlife!
Thank you, Katy!!!