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There's a Golden Eagle perched in the Sycamore, but it was only visible through a scope

There’s a Golden Eagle perched in the Sycamore, but it was only visible through a scope

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but I was out of town for the past 3 days.  It was a work thing.  So, yes, another post with photos from the Sandhill Crane Festival.  While I would like to have lots of cool pictures from the Atlanta Marquis Hotel (where I did not get to stay because it was full by the time travel approval came through, but I did spend at least 12 hours a day there), it just wasn’t a good time to be lugging around my giant camera and tripod.

Adult Bald Eagle

Adult Bald Eagle

In fact, it wasn’t a good time to do anything.  Had I not been staying 2 blocks away, I might not have seen daylight for 3 days.  Several of us commented that we felt like we were in Vegas–no sense of time, confined to a conference center all day, moving from room to room, meeting to meeting, session to session, the only things missing were gambling and booze.

I did get to go out to dinner with some of the folks I work with whom I rarely get to see in person, which was great fun.  But, of course, it was well after dark (and even after bedtime the second night) by the time we went to dinner.

Adult Bald Eagle a little closer

Adult Bald Eagle a little closer

If you have never been to the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, it’s worth seeing. In fact, I need to plan a weekend in Atlanta that includes shooting the lobby.  I shot the Marquis lobby many years ago with my old PowerShot G3 and no tripod.  I would love to see what I could get with my current camera on a tripod.  If you want to see what it looks like, here’s the post with the old photos.

The thing about going to work events is that it sounds like fun, and some of it is fun, but it’s really tiring.  Pat and Tisen delivered me to Atlanta on Monday night.  We stayed in a La Quinta hotel a few miles North of the Marquis.  This is because La Quinta allows dogs.  They don’t even charge extra.

Three cranes circling the refuge

Three cranes circling the refuge

However, La Quinta is not in the best of locations and they don’t have the most comfortable of beds.  So, I started my 3 days already tired and slept less and worse the next two nights alone in a hotel around the corner from the Marquis.   Between limited sleep, walking around all day, eating crap, and being on my best behavior from 7AM to 11PM for 3 days, I’m pretty darn beat.

I think it’s probably the being on my best behavior part that’s so darn tiring–it’s be so much easier to just be myself.

Clearing the tree

Clearing the tree

The saving grace was that I was only a 2-hour drive away and in the same time zone.  Given that many of my colleagues were there from Europe and a few from Asia, I didn’t really feel like I could complain.  I’m feeling ready to go to bed (and to perhaps stay there through the weekend) none-the-less.

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Looking across the lake

Distant Bugles

Flying in front of reflected trees

Flying in front of reflected trees

When we went to the Sandhill Crane Festival, we noticed some things about the cranes.  First, they are noisy.  They seem to spend a lot of time flying around, forming groups, calling to each other and circling.

It’s kind of like watching marching band practice when the band hasn’t been training together very long.  They seem uncertain about how to line up, who’s in the lead, or where they’re going.

They bugle their unique call endlessly.  It can be heard for miles.

Synchronized flapping

Synchronized flapping

Their call is somewhat reminiscent of the sound my brother used to make when he’d sneaked up on me and was trying to terrify me.  My husband thinks it sounds more like a loud turkey, but he never heard my brother.

A “heard” (yes, it’s a pun) of cranes grazed in the grasses across the refuge from us.  The one bad thing about the Hiwassee Refuge and the Sandhill Crane Festival is that the birds are mostly very far away.  I know this is best, especially when there’s a crowd.  After all, the idea of a refuge is to give wildlife a place to be wildlife without being harassed or stressed by the presence of humans.  But, it does make it difficult to get good photos.  If it weren’t for the circling cranes who seemed to want to check us out, I wouldn’t have gotten much detail at all (see previous posts to see these photos).

You can probably tell we were far away from the group of cranes on the ground from this photo:

The "heard"

The “heard”

 

But it might not be obvious just how far away that really is–I shot it at 400mm.  In fact, almost all of my shots (except those with a long line of cranes flying) posted over the last several days were shot at 400mm.   Mind you, the Sandhill Crane is the largest bird found in Tennessee.  They are up to 4’ tall and have a wingspan of up to 90” (that’s 7.5’).  These are big birds.  And I was shooting with as long a lens as I can afford.  The only answer is to get closer.

Of course, not during the festival.  There are two ways to get closer to the birds.  They both involve getting on the water.  One is to go kayaking–Outdoor Chattanooga offers an annual kayaking tour in the refuge in December.  We did that last year.  It was pretty tough to get good pictures from the kayak.  Plus, we weren’t allowed in the area with the densest population of cranes.  Thankfully for the birds (but not my photos), the wildlife folks take protecting these birds seriously.

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The other way is to take a Blue Moon cruise through the refuge.  This might be the best option for photographic opportunities.  We’ll have to see if we can work that into our schedule.  Worst case, there are soon going to be a couple of unreleasable cranes at the Chattanooga Nature Center.  I ought to be able to get a close-up.

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Tree tops reflected in water below group of cranes

Sandhill Crane Festival

View of the refuge from the main viewing area

View of the refuge from the main viewing area

Every year, the Chattanooga chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society volunteers for the Sandhill Crane Festival.  While we’ve gone to the Hiwasee Wildlife Refuge two years in a row to see the Sandhill Cranes, we’ve never gone to the actual festival.  We decided to give it a try this year.

A small flock of sandhill cranes flying overhead

A small flock of sandhill cranes flying overhead

Because it’s a wildlife refuge, dogs are not welcome.  So, Tisen had to go to doggy daycare for a few hours.  This put a slight damper on the event for us, although I understand why dogs aren’t allowed.  We chose not to stay for the birds of prey show the Eagle Foundation was scheduled to provide, for example.

Same flock, regrouping

Same flock, regrouping

The cool thing about the festival was the TOS volunteers.  They set up scopes on the observation decks and called out sightings of interesting birds.  Were it not for the TOS volunteers, I would not have seen a Whooping Crane for the first time (although I’m hesitant to count it–it was so far away that even with my binoculars, it was just a flash of white amongst a flock of Sandhill Cranes) or a Golden Eagle.

A trio of cranes

A trio of cranes

The Golden Eagle was perched amongst some trees on a far away island.  I could only see it through a scope.  It had its back to us, so were it not for one very experienced TOS member who knew how to tell the two apart, I’m not sure any of us would have realized what we were witnessing.

We saw immature Bald Eagles, one adult Bald Eagle in the air and a second on a nest through a scope, Ring-neck ducks, and Canvas-back ducks all thanks to the skills of the volunteers.  I would have spent a lot of time figuring the ducks out and then not felt confident I had it right.  It’s just more exciting to bird with people who know what they’re doing.

Same trio with wings down, up, and flat

Same trio with wings down, up, and flat

The weather also made it exciting to be outside again.  Bright blue skies, tons of sunshine, and warming temperatures all made me smile ear-to-ear.

Although, during the festival you have to park at an elementary school in the nearby town (village might be more accurate) and take a bus to the viewing areas.

The recent rains created a slight delay in our return shuttle ride.  A couple of miles from where we were parked, a flatbed tow truck pulled out across the road, blocking traffic in both directions.  They stopped to pull a backhoe out of a muddy ditch where it was stuck.

This ended up taking about 20 minutes.  So, we got to sit on a school bus and watch while these guys used a winch from the truck and another guy pushed the backhoe with a front loader and together, they hauled the backhoe out of the mud and onto the truck.  When we got going again, we passed the giant mud puddle–it was a red, gooey mess that looked like a giant wound.  Hopefully the sun will “heal” it quickly.

Single crane over the lake

Single crane over the lake

If the Boats a Rockin’

It’s Saturday.  Marcy’s Playground comes to mind every time I say that.  With “It’s Saturday” running as the soundtrack in my head, I start gathering up the stuff I will take with me on our kayaking trip today.  We have signed up for an Outdoor Chattanooga outing kayaking at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.  The Sandhill Crane is migrating through the area and it’s an opportunity to see (hopefully) thousands of them up close.

I, of course, want to shoot.  I’ve never tried to shoot from a kayak before–it will be interesting.  But, I have gone to great pains to make sure I can keep my camera dry when not shooting.  I purchased a Pelican waterproof box and carefully sculpted the foam in the box to hold my camera safely.  I’m not quite clear on where I will put this special box so that I can get the camera in and out without rolling the boat, but we’ll worry about that when we get there.

Pat is convinced that we will be going into the river today.  In spite of the fact that we will be in a sea kayak (much more stable than river kayaks) and that we will be in a tandem (even more stable), Pat is sure we are going to roll.  He bases this assuredness on past experience.  We were once on a tandem sea kayak in the Caribbean sitting perfectly still and I (at least, he thinks it was me) managed to flip up.  I contend that it was him, or the ocean, or the wind.  But I have to admit that my track record is at least pretty good circumstantial evidence against me.

However, it’s December and it’s not exactly a warm day with a high expected in the mid-40’s.  I’m pretty determined that we are not going in the river.  I find myself somewhat superstitious about this, however.  I take the approach of fully preparing for a dip in cold water as a measure of ensuring that it doesn’t happen.  It’s the theory of, “If you don’t want it to rain, carry an umbrella and put off washing your car.”

As I dress for our adventure, I choose carefully.  Under Armour tights, hiking pants, rain pants, Under Armour top, wool pullover, fleece, rain jacket.  Each under layer dries quickly and retains heat even when wet.  The waterproof top layer will protect me from splashes and help retain heat as well.  I hate being cold.  I also pick out a goofy hat.  The wind is pretty strong out there and it will only be worse on the water.  I want to be comfortable more than I want to look good.

Satisfied that my camera is well-protected and my clothes will keep me warm even if we fall in, we load up and head on out.  We have a bag with a change of dry clothes so we won’t have to ride home wet in the worst case.  We also have both of our day packs with a bladder of water each and big lunches, two pairs of binoculars, and my waterproof box.  For people who have been downsizing for years, we manage to look like pack mules every time we go somewhere.

We arrive at the park where we’re meeting for the tour.  One of the guides has a Newfoundland dog.  When we walk up, the dog leans against me, laying the weight of his head against my belly.  I rub his big old head and think for the millionth time how much I miss our dogs.

When everyone is ready to go, we load all of our crap and ourselves into the van and head on down the road.  By the time we get to the refuge, I think my body temperature is over 100 and I’m stripping off layers.  As soon as we get out of the van, I am quickly putting them back on.

Everyone gets settled in their boats, adjusting foot pedals and positioning their stuff.  One of the guides, Terry, helps Pat lash my waterproof box to the top of the kayak in front of me so I can easily get my camera in and out.  This is a good thing–I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get the thing in and out of the tiny space for my legs.

Before we get started, Pat has troubles with the rudder and while a guide is helping him sort it out, I spot a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

We paddle our way across the main channel and then head along the shore of the refuge, trying not to get close enough to scare the birds.  A large white bird is standing on the shore ahead of us.  It turns out it’s a White Pelican, not a typical bird for the area.  We were hoping for Whooping Cranes, which migrate through Hiwassee every winter, but no such luck.  The pelican decides to take off as we approach, but manages to fly at an angle so that he has his back to us the entire time.  I’m frustrated by my shots.

As I shoot the White Pelican, I see a cluster of Sandhill Cranes standing on the shore behind the flight of the pelican.  There are only a dozen or so gathered there, but we can hear what must be hundreds of Sandhill Cranes gabbing away at one another.  They are an impossibly loud bird whose voice can carry a mile or more.

Across the channel we spot a group of smaller white birds floating on the water.  Someone says they are ring-billed gulls, but I don’t get a close enough look to decide if I agree.  I’m busy looking at the grassy bank above them.  Pat asks me if the bank is covered in Sandhill Cranes.  Unfortunately, the kayak won’t hold still and we bob up and down as I try to look through my binoculars.  For a moment I am convinced they are cows, then I realize I’ve misjudged the distance (and therefore the size).  They are Sandhill Cranes after all.  I blush at having thought they were cows.

We continue on our way, seeing many Great Blue Heron, Double-Crested Cormorants, Coots, possibly Lesser Scaups, and Bald Eagles.  I’m not as familiar with water birds, so I don’t even attempt to identify the gulls that fly by.

We make our way around the island, paddling ferociously against the current until we get around the tip of the island and start floating back with the current.  As we complete the trip, three more bald eagles appear and a group of cranes fly by.  It’s hard to believe we’ve been out on the water for nearly 3 hours.  Even more unbelievable, we never fell in!

When I click through my photos, I have to laugh out loud.  If I scroll through fast enough that the shots are movie-like, I feel like I’m back in the boat again.  The rocking of the boat is capture in the movement of my subject in the frame from one shot to the next.  I can’t tell on the small LCD if anything is in focus or not, but I hope my fast shutter made up for all the motion in the boat.