I spent one night in a motel in Cherokee, Oklahoma (alone) and the next morning standing on a chilly observation tower on the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge waiting with a camera for some Sandhill Cranes to show up. And show up they did, thousands of them. Actually, they were already there as they come into the refuge to overnight and then fly out to feed during the day. Not all of them of course, some sleep in, others stand around and rest, chatting among themselves on their favorite topics; food, the recent flight, and the weather.
The cranes breed in Canada and Alaska and then, as any sensible bird would, fly south for the winter. Salt Plains is but one stopover point. The Platte River in Nebraska is another well known resting spot. They're big birds, impressive, about 3 and 1/2 half feet long with a wingspan of six to seven feet. They have a unique call. Folks more knowledgeable than I describe it as a long, wooden, rattle, a sort of bugle. To me, it sounds a little like a Mourning Dove trying to gargle.
Not only was it cold that morning with a strong northwest wind and the temperature around 40 degrees, but the early light wasn't lining up for the best photography. The Sandhills take off into the wind which meant I was getting a lot of butt shots and very few where the bird was well lit. Challenging but still a lot of fun.
I had visited the same spot the previous evening at sundown when conditions were less harsh. As far as I could tell, there was not another human being around. I had the entire area to myself, well, me and 20,000 birds. A thin band of clouds in the west hinted of a colorful sunset as I stood and watched and listened as flock after flock of cranes flew overhead and across the horizon. Some landed close, within a hundred yards, while others continued to the far side of the lake for the safety of an island. Shorebirds skittered along the bank in front of me, dipping their fragile looking bills over and over, hoping for one last morsel of food before dark. The ducks were there as well, landing with a loud whoosh as hundreds of webbed feet made contact with the water.
At some point, the light was finally gone and after taking just a few more shots of the cranes silhouetted against the orange sky, I turned the cameras off and made the short walk back to the truck. I laughed as two armadillos practically ran into me as they scampered across the trail. It was a good day.