The Gift

Early one morning in late February of 2014, after walking around Peaceful Waters Sanctuary photographing flora and fauna of interest, I was approaching the only entrance/exit when I spotted a Bandana-of-the-Everglades flower at the water’s edge. The yellow flower against the blue water background was striking and so I took several shots of it from different perspectives. As I was removing my camera from the tripod about to call it a morning and exit PWS, I looked up to see a large bird flying directly towards me from 50 yards away. I couldn’t make out what kind of bird it was beyond it being a very large bird. It was five feet off the ground and flying right at me blocking my only exit. I wasn’t alarmed as I was too busy trying to identify it. Then at about 20 yards I noticed the red crown and knew it was a Sandhill Crane.

The flight path hadn’t changed and it continued flying at me. I was thrilled to see it coming so close. I had on two previous occasions photographed Sandhill Cranes including a family of cranes last winter. This however was not a behavior I had ever witnessed. I quickly looked around to see if there was another crane in the vicinity that I had mistakenly encroached upon, but there wasn’t. I watched as it came at me from 12 feet away and I pivoted to the side to avoid an inevitable collision. It landed two feet from me and looked at me through its eye on the side of its head closest to me. I stood motionless. It turned around to face me and glanced at my tripod as I moved it in between us. The tripod had long skinny black legs much like that of the crane. I was looking at the long beak and thinking it could really do some damage if I wasn’t careful and if it were so inclined. I remained calm and the crane remained calm but curious. It was interested in my three long skinny legs (tripod of course) and began to lower its head and peck at them. Then it noticed the rubber tip on the end and pecked at it several times. It moved its head and looked at my boat shoes and began to peck at one of them. Not hard enough to cause discomfort but it certainly had my full attention as it moved from the shoe to the rawhide shoe lace and then began to tug at it. This is amazing I thought to myself.

I had a telephoto lens on my camera which made taking photos impossible at such a close distance. As if it had finished its inspection of me, its head rose up and we were so close I could see every detail on it, including the grains of sand on its bill. It was looking me in the eye and I spoke softly saying, “You are beautiful”. In an instant I knew this was a chance encounter and one that shouldn’t be prolonged for the crane’s safety. I didn’t want the crane to think that all people would treat its approach with the same greeting as I had just done. I began backing up towards the exit. It followed me closely but I was able to put enough distance between us to get off a few shots with the camera strapped around my neck. I was wondering why in all my years of photographing nature and wildlife I had not experienced this level of curiosity from a sandhill crane. As I moved closer to the exit the crane kept coming. When I got to the exit I stopped and the crane stopped. I moved the tripod from between us and turned and walked out the open exit. I glanced back to see the crane walking back from where it had first come. Then I wondered if it had a young crane that it was protecting which might explain the behavior I had just witnessed. There was no evidence of this and so I was left wondering.

As I was loading my gear to head home, I was reflecting on what had just happened. I was thankful for the experience. This particular morning, I got up, gathered my gear, and headed to Peaceful Waters Sanctuary to explore. Never did I imagine what was in store for me. What I discovered there was a gift that was a renewal for my enthusiasm of getting into nature and photographing it. You just never know what you’ll discover and learn about nature and yourself. I consider myself a conservation photographer recording flora and fauna in a non consumptive manner for others to enjoy and care enough about to preserve. The encounter was not normal for either the sandhill crane or me. It was inspiring for me and I hoped not going to be a recurring event for the crane.

Follow up:

On April 4, 2014, I went to Peaceful Waters Sanctuary and I photographed a family of sandhill cranes walking towards me on a land dyke. There was no hesitation in their approach even with the newest member of the family in tow. From 20 yards away I knew they were going to walk right up to me so I turned around to remove myself from their path. Sandhill cranes should never feel comfortable around humans nor let their guard down. Florida’s sandhill cranes are a threatened species that do not adjust well to changed environments and high human populations. Add to this, only Nebraska has outlawed hunting sandhill cranes. Kentucky has a hunting season for them and Tennessee has recently added one.