What is it about the prairie regions of this country that cause birds to evolve some of the most bizarre an exotic mating rituals that can be witnessed in the US? Growing up back east, I really cannot think of a bird whose mating rituals even begin to compare with those of the plains and prairies. Last week I spent several mornings tucked into a blind photographing the mating displays of greater sage grouse. This week it was sandhill cranes. . .
Just like the sage grouse, I’m gonna say right off the bat that if you have never had the opportunity to photograph these birds, you are missing out! For starters, they are massive! Sandhills are one of the tallest birds in North America (the sandhill crane, whooping crane, and jabiru all come in at around 5 feet tall!). So right there photographing sandhill cranes is not like photographing any other bird around.
To be honest, this height actually makes photographing their mating dances pretty difficult. Sandhills get pretty creative when it comes to their dances. They pick up sticks and toss them into the air, jump around in circles, flap about, and generally get pretty crazy. All of this is good stuff, its exciting to see and fun to photograph. The only problem is that they will jump some 10 feet into the air in the middle of these dances! Have you ever watched those African dance where the guys are standing in line and leaping 3 feet into the air without bending their knees? That is EXACTLY what sandhill cranes look like! Its like they leap with their toes and just rocket up into the air above you and everything else. This makes for a whole lot of photographs of just feet sticking down into the frame as they seemingly blast off like a model rocket.
Photographing these mating rituals is very similar to photographing birds in flight. You are going to want you camera set up just like you would if you were working egrets flying and and out of a rookery for instance.
These are my settings, remember I shoot Nikon so Canon will be similar but with different tittles for their controls:
- AF-C (for Canon this would be servo)
- Continuous high
- 51 autofocus points.
Now the AF-C (Autofocus – Continuous) as well as the D-21 (dynamic autofocus using 21 points) are both accessed on the FRONT of your camera with the new models. Right where you see the option to put you camera in to autofocus or manual mode (camera not lens) there will also be a button that you can press. Press this and look through your viewfinder at the same time and you will see your autofocus options displayed. Rotate your thumb and index finger on the dials to change these.
The setting for continuous high is where you set your exposure modes (aperture, shutter, manual. . .)
The 51 autofocus points is set in the menu of your camera under the auto focus settings.
Since there is so much erratic movement, with little to no way to predict exactly what the birds next move is in the dance, you have to be quick on the draw and on point with your autofocusing technique. The speed and eratic nature of these dances is at times more than your autofocus system can keep up with. Therefore, again just like in shooting birds in flight, you will want to consider working the AF button on the back of your camera (if you camera comes equipped with and AF-on button).
They key to success here is to have patience and take lots of photos.