The Stetson wearing fireman at the control burn in Nebraska last week left his truck for a few minutes to survey the fire line with his dog. He turned the truck around a few moments after I took the first photograph, and the fire flared up so they both ran back to the truck to drive down the hillside to douse the flames before the wind whipped them out of control. The heat shimmer from the flames is quite pronounced in the upper half of the second photograph, where it is absent from the first.
A skirmish between a couple of Greater Prairie Chickens ended in a tie…neither chicken scored with a female.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse is aptly named. Here, a male Sharp-tailed Grouse dances in hopes of attracting a female grouse. He bows, spreads his wings out stiffly, raises his pointed tail straight up, runs in spurts, turning with short, thumping steps, and chirps his song.
The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill
These opening lines of Canto 1 of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake have somehow been etched on my brain since high school when I read this poem. I always loved the poem’s cadence but apart from those first two lines, I remember little else of it. The title for this blog post came to mind as I watched the female Greater Prairie Chickens strut about the lek, haughty and seemingly disdainful of the males. None of the males appeared to be acceptable by the females and both days we watched, the females left without choosing a mate.
Action on the lek is sporadic as the male Greater Prairie Chickens pair off to try to dominate each other. The skirmishes never seem to last long although the staring stand-offs can be quite lengthy. This pair exploded after staring at each other for a while. Then, they settled down again to glare at each other until one finally walked away in search of another rival to challenge.
The dance of the Sharp-tailed Grouse is a little different from the dance of the Greater Prairie Chicken but the competition among the males is very similar. They face off, hunkered low then suddenly explode into the air, feet and talons threatening, all nuts, guts, and feathers.
Male Greater Prairie Chickens put on quite a display to impress a female. The males pair off and posture against each other with calls, booms, foot thrumming, and jumping attacks. This demonstration lasts for hours each morning on the lek during a short few weeks during mating season. The females arrive late at the lek after the males have invested quite a bit of time trying to intimidate the other males. The females stroll across the lek, seemingly indifferent to the males’ efforts to attract their attention. As long as the females are there, the males continue their dance. Often, the females observe for a while, then disappear without choosing a partner. As the females disappear, the disappointed males quiet down and eventually fly off to feed and get sustenance to continue their efforts tomorrow.
This female perched atop the barbed wire, swaying and wriggling trying to maintain her balance as she looked over the males for a potential mate. One of the smitten males hopped up to the fence post near where she’d perched after she moved further down. He tried to thrum his feet on the small post, only to lose his balance and stumble. When he regained his balance, she was gone.
For me, bird photography is pure joy. I find it challenging, exhilarating, and I enjoy every moment of it. When I bought my first Nikon camera eight years ago, I never dreamed I would become so passionate about it. But during these past several years of learning photography, I’ve come to the realization that while I am not truly a “birder,” I’ve come to love birds and bird photography.
This past week, I’ve been in the Sand Hills of Nebraska with my friends Moose, Richard, and Eric. We’re photographing Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse on their leks but Wednesday we left the ranch and drove a couple hours to the Platte River near Gibbon, Nebraska to photograph sunset.
Until Wednesday, I hadn’t realized that the largest migration of Sandhill Cranes stops along an 80 mile stretch of the central Platte River valley on their way to nesting grounds in the north at this time of year. As they’ve done for centuries and perhaps millennia, about a half million Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes stop here over a few short weeks to fuel up for the remainder of their journey on what is left of corn and grain in the harvested fields along the river.
When we stopped near Gibbon where the highway crosses the Platte, I was stunned to see wave after wave of mostly Lesser Sandhill Cranes flying from their feeding grounds to spend the night in the river. It was exciting to witness these magnificent birds as they flew in squadrons, silhouetted against clouds burned orange from the setting sun. We estimated 20,000 cranes flew over our heads during the 30 minutes we watched. This glorious sunset reaffirmed my feelings of pure joy when I am photographing birds. As we stood at the edge of the road watching the ancient spectacle as the birds settled into the shallow water in front of the glorious sunset , I was reminded of how one can find great pleasure and happiness in unexpected places .
On Tuesday afternoon in Nebraska, we were invited to photograph a control burn on the Sand Hills ranch property where we stayed. These types of burns are used to control invasive species and to revive the prairie grasses on the ranch’s pasture lands. The operation was scheduled on this day because of the perfect weather conditions and we were allowed access to areas around the perimeter of the burn. The fire department and ranch fire crews, driving ATVs, pickups, small fire trucks and massive converted surplus military tankers with water, raced up and down the sandy hills igniting the fires in specific areas, watching closely, and watering hot spots to maintain control. We were intrigued by the three huge tankers, and one in particular that proudly flew a tattered American flag and was driven by a Stetson wearing fireman accompanied by his dog. That imposing truck, dubbed Megatron, was my favorite.
As we watched through the heat shimmer, Megatron raced down the hillside to keep control of the fire line. We stood on the burned perimeter for a couple of hours while flames raced across the prairie and Megatron and the others safely and efficiently controlled the massive burn.
We all reeked of smoke but the excitement of this unexpected privilege that took us so close to the flames and let us watch such an expert crew at work made up for it.
Fish eye lenses create such distorted views of the world like a fish looking through a fish bowl but when the horizon is placed dead center, it serves as the wide-angle lens it is. My fish eye lens is a DX 10.5mm lens so when I put it on the D850, the D850 became a crop sensor camera. I took quite a few shots at Hopi Point in the Grand Canyon one morning trying to get the horizon dead center. This one of my successful attempts.