Necedah Wisconsin

My 2 day adventure in Search of the Whooping Cranes


(Clicking on an image below will bring up a larger version of it.)


Day 1 (Sat, Oct. 17)

I went to bed Friday night thinking that the weather just wasn't going to be suitable for making the trip, so I was a bit pessimistic when I got up at 3:30AM.  The Air Force base (Volk) near Necedah, however,  was reporting clear skies and calm winds.  The forecast still wasn't great, but I thought maybe it would hold out given the current conditions.  So, I decided to give it a shot and by 7AM I was standing by myself at the top of the observation tower in the freezing cold at sunrise (particularly chilled after riding a scooter for the final15 minutes of the trip).  At first, it looked like things might work out well, but then a thin overcast moved in and it basically just kept getting thicker. 


At least there was some wildlife action where I was (the observation tower - I later learned this was the wrong place to be if you wanted to view the Whooping Crane Operation Migration activities - oops, that also explains why I was by myself).

Non avian wildlife
Canon EOS 20D; 800mm.  Cropped to 32% of full frame.
1/60 sec f/5.6. ISO 400
(I try to avoid shooting the 20D above ISO 400 due to image noise)

The sun appeared for about 4 minutes and these guys came by. Not a lot of light, so a slow shutter speed, but I kind of like the soft look here.
Canon EOS 20D; 800mm.. Cropped to 58% of full frame.
1/80 sec f/5.6. ISO 400

My first (and only) Whooping Crane of the day. 

(Fortunately I'd have better luck on day 2)
Canon EOS 20D; 800mm. Cropped to 6% of full frame. (yep, this bird was far away)
1/125 sec f/5.6. ISO 400

I liked how this Sandhill was facing me straight on (too bad he was still so far away)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm. Cropped to 11% of full frame.
1/250 sec f/5.6. ISO 800

Conditions did brighten slightly, but still tough for me to crisply freeze the action or increase the depth of field (I, on the other hand, was frozen stiff)

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm. Cropped to 19% of full frame.
1/320 sec f/5.6. ISO 800


As the activity at the observation tower died down, I tried to explore the rest of the wildlife refuge.  Alas, the map I had didn't exactly correspond to the signage on the roads, so rather than wander around not sure of where I was (I was already frozen solid), I decided to call it a day and headed back to town to try and find a warm restaurant and hot coffee.  This is where I met the highlight of my day...


It was kind of noticeable that I was on some kind of bike (helmet was a dead giveaway, the shivering probably confirmed it).  A gentleman commented that it must be cold on a bike out there to which I said that indeed it was.  He commented that he had been out in the cold too and I asked what he had been doing and he mentioned flying.  Well, that was why I had come up to Necedah: to see Operation Migration in action!  It turns out, not only was he a pilot for Operation Migration, he was one of the founders and the current CEO of the organization...Joe Duff.  He invited me to visit the hangar ("your Baron is basically pointing at it" :-) ) which I accepted in a heartbeat.  30 minutes later (I had to finish my breakfast and coffee - though I never really warmed up) I was visiting with Joe in their main hangar.  He explained how the rearing and migration process had been developed and evolved (Canadian Geese, Sandhill Cranes and now Whooping Cranes). He shared some amazing stories about flying in formation with the birds and observing them up close in flight (little shifts in their chest to adjust speed, a slow 'retraction' of their legs from the trailing position to the tucked position in order to warm them up, etc).  His first ultralight "trike" is in the Smithsonian!  This was one amazing gentleman, and we was generous with his time and stories, and it really made my day. 



Day 2 (Sun, Oct. 18)

I didn't warm up until very late in the day on Saturday, so I wasn't sure I was up for another day of riding a scooter before sunrise and hanging out in the cold, but I added some layers and headed off again since the weather looked particularly promising this morning.


Winds aloft were under 20 knots, so I was hoping that maybe I'd be able to observe the Whoopers joining in formation with the ultralights to start their migration. 


This time, I went to the right place - the "Ducks Unlimited" platform isn't shown on the Reserve's just off Highway 21 on Headquarters Road (about 1/2 mile in).  I could tell I was in the right place this time since there were numerous "Craniacs" there with me - some had gotten up at 2:30AM and driven about 4 hours to get here!  Heck, I slept in by comparison :-)


Weather was holding up - calm winds and some scattered to broken clouds, so we were cautiously optimistic.

If you look closely at the rear bird, you can see the antenna on the GPS transmitter.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm.
1/1250 sec f/5.6. ISO 800

Alas, as soon as the ultralights got airborne, you could hear them on the radio complaining about the 'trashy air' - certain winds over the trees can create enough turbulence that they cannot fly effectively in formation with the cranes.  So, they called off the mission, but did provide us with a fly-by from one of the aircraft.

They wear these white outfits whenever they're around the cranes - I wonder if the outfit helps keep them warm ;-).

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm.
1/1250 sec f/5.6. ISO 800


WIth the flying portion aborted, and with a better understanding of the layout of the refuge, I went off to explore - hoping to find some Whooping Cranes and some warmth (even with extra layers, I was chilled).


At the far northern end, I found 2 cranes (not very close, but better than day 1), and the sunshine did help take the edge off the cold. 


Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1600mm. Cropped to 60% of full frame.
1/800 sec f/11. ISO 800

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm.. Cropped to 27% of full frame.
1/3200 sec f/5.6. ISO 800

"What is that funny white thing?"
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1120mm. Cropped to 35% of full frame.
1/3200 sec f/8. ISO 800

"What was that?!"
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm. Cropped to 29% of full frame.
1/3200 sec f/8. ISO 800

Whooping and Sandhills and Ducks - oh my!
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm. Cropped to 50% of full frame.
1/3200 sec f/8. ISO 800

More "Whooping and Sandhills and Ducks - oh my!"
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 800mm. Cropped to 39% of full frame.
1/5000 sec f/5.6. ISO 800

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 11200mm. Cropped to 9% of full frame.
1/3200 sec f/8. ISO 800

I think this is a Marsh Hawk, but I didn't get a good look at it.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1120mm. Cropped to 6% of full frame.
1/1600 sec f/8. ISO 800

I learned several things about the Whooping cranes this weekend: (1) their leg bands are color coded for the year in which they were born, (2) the little antenna is for the GPS locator, (3) their poops are white and huge :-)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1120mm. Cropped to 18% of full frame.
1/4000 sec f/8. ISO 800

I wanted to photograph a Whooping Crane in flight, but most of the time, they seemed to be happy walking around eating. While photographing the one in the background here, its mate (?) decided to relocate. I didn't realize that it was airborne until it passed through my viewfinder. It was almost as if it was trying to protect its mate from the paparazzi :-)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1120mm. Cropped to 15% of full frame.
1/4000 sec f/8. ISO 800

Yep - they took to the air finally, but unfortunately, heading away.

C'est la vie.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; 1120mm. Cropped to 21% of full frame.
1/2500 sec f/8. ISO 800




My local wheels (whole 'nother story) - I didn't do the math for the wind chill of 32 F and 35 mph, but it was cold! I'm still warming up!
Canon EOS 20D; 24 mm.
1/60 sec f/4. ISO 400

That's all for now.