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The Nygren Five: A Photographer’s Vigil

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What is it about the endangered whooping crane that so entrances the human heart? Local photographer Mark Blassage shares his experience of spending 24 days on “crane time” last fall.

(Mark Blassage photos)

The terms “alarm clock” and “bedtime” are not usually part of my working vocabulary. As a self-employed photographer, I have the luxury of setting my own schedule and making it work for me. But when whooping cranes land within a few minutes of my home, what works for me is doing whatever it takes to document as much of this event as possible. Since cranes live by the rising and setting sun, I had to do likewise or miss out. I was on Crane Time now.

We all were. For 24 days, I had three extra layers of clothes laid across the back of a chair in my living room and I changed in and out of them three times a day. I woke up early, filled a thermos with coffee, layered up, grabbed my camera and headed out into the cold, dark morning.

Mark Blassage photo

It began on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009. This was the day that Operation Migration departed Winnebago County, Ill., with 20 young cranes and celebrated 10,000 miles of leading whooping cranes with ultralight aircraft. At this time there were 104 cranes in the Eastern Migratory Flock, and, as we learned, it was still a bit early for the adult population to begin its fall migration. It was on the morning of this day that Steve Torre and his son, McKinley, witnessed five large white birds descend upon the quiet Nygren Wetlands [near Rockton, Ill., a restoration project of the Natural Land Institute]. Word spread quickly.

Over the next three weeks, our local conservation and birding constituency came alive and flocked to the preserve to witness this rare event.
It wasn’t until midday Monday, Nov. 16, that I received the call from Sue Merchant at the Natural Land Institute (NLI). She told me that the five adult whooping cranes had left at sunrise and no one knew if they would return. I grabbed my camera and raced out to the preserve.

One soul occupied the overlook platform when I arrived. No whoopers in sight. We made small talk. He was from Chicago, had read about the sighting online, and came to see. Seek and you shall find, right? Hope and wish? Wait … watch … wonder … speculate. Shift your weight to the other leg. Lean on the railing. Look again. It could be a long wait, maybe for nothing.

Mark Blassage photo.

“Hey, I see something white way over there!” said Mr. Chicago. Our binoculars locked on the spot and we quietly rejoiced with wide eye contact, big smiles and nodding heads. We had confirmed our first whooping crane sighting.

The bird had been there the whole time. Another came out from behind the grasses, and then three more appeared, flying in from the west. My camera clicked as they sailed across our field of view and made what I’m sure was a routine landing – one that took our breath away. I called Sue at NLI to report that our new friends had returned.

Another man arrived at the overlook. We chatted as we peered through binoculars. After a couple of minutes, I began to recognize his voice. He was the “bird man,” Lee Johnson, who I had found so intriguing when I attended Bird Fest at the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory last spring. I had listened to him talk about birds for a couple of hours that weekend and easily could have stayed a couple more. Soon I met his wife, Lynda. She was equally knowledgeable. How lucky for me that our lives converged for a short while at the overlook. As the sky grew dark, I had to pull myself away, but I knew where I would be at sunrise.

Nov. 17, sunrise expected at 6:41 a.m. I arrived at the overlook at 6:15. It was still very dark. Surprised at the sound of footsteps, I turned to see Lee and Lynda approaching. “I guess I’m not the only one,” I thought. Together we observed the morning rituals of our five whooping cranes and waited for take-off. I wanted every photo opportunity, so I was very vigilant. One could miss a lot if caught off-guard, and we knew that every chance to see them could be our last. Whoever noticed first would call out, “There they go!”

The whoopers lifted off in silence and made their way across the sky, oblivious that there was anything extraordinary about this morning’s landscape. We, on the other hand, watched as if witnessing a miracle.

Some days the five would leave together with sandhill cranes, some days without. We noted these details along with the take-off time each morning and reported back to Sue at NLI, who reported to Sara Zimorski, aviculturalist at The International Crane Foundation (ICF), and to Heather Ray, with Operation Migration. We didn’t know it at the time, but Lee, Lynda and I would be spending mornings and evenings together for the next few weeks.

Mark Blassage photo.

It’s a funny reason to get to know someone – the fact that you’re both standing in the same place at the same time for days on end. But there we were, sunrise and sunset, like employees at our new job watching whooping cranes. Our fledgling field team was falling into place.

After morning take-off, Lee and Lynda would drive around, hoping to find where the cranes went during the day. I would go home and send photos with a brief description to Sue, then attend to my portrait work so I could sneak back out to the overlook for a midday check.

Within a few days, Lynda reported finding the whoopers in a farmer’s field. Amazed, I asked how she found them. Lynda explained that she and Lee often drive the country roads looking for sandhills. They thought it made sense that if they found the sandhills, they’d also find the whoopers. Before long, we got to know the favorite spots and we collectively checked on the five throughout the day and faithfully reported our observations.

Evenings at the overlook were quite festive, at times. People began trickling in up to an hour before sunset and numbers sometimes grew to about 35 people. For a quiet little roadside platform, that’s a crowd. We waited on our perch with great anticipation for the whoopers’ spectacular return. Waiting, watching, chatting.

“Here they come!” someone would say. All attention turned to the sky as a large flock of birds came into view. They were soon identified as geese or cranes. If cranes, the observers with the best binoculars determined if any of them were white. Eventually it would become clear: five white birds leading a flock of 80 sandhills. Clicking cameras, oohs and ahs greeted our celebrity visitors.

Mark Blassage photos

It really was a sight: A large flock of birds moving across the sky, putting on air brakes, maneuvering, positioning themselves to bank and display their full wingspan upright, as they turned against the tree line, reflecting the warm evening sun. Gently they descended; their flapping turned effortlessly into landing, and they walked into the shallow waters of the wetland.

Along with the experience of sharing time and space with an endangered species, we were awed by the birds’ sheer size and gracefulness. With hundreds of geese and sandhill cranes, numerous ducks and five whooping cranes all settling in for the night, it was indeed happy hour at the Nygren Wetlands.
Days turned into weeks; fall turned into winter. The shallow waters of the wetland began to freeze around the edges. Lee and Lynda left for Florida on Dec. 7, after 21 days on crane watch. I was soon joined by Mike Descamps, a Rockton local who recently began frequenting the overlook. Every morning and night from then on, he met me out in the freezing weather, video camera in hand. We endured colder and colder temperatures. The fields became dusted with snow, but the cranes remained. Sara told us that they might stay until they could no longer find food. Mike and I would stay until we could no longer find cranes.

Dec. 8 brought snow that covered most of the ground, and the next day brought a real blizzard that made reaching the overlook a challenge. Upon arrival, I set up my tripod and scanned the preserve for whoopers, but white birds are well camouflaged in the snow. In a near-whiteout situation, I had to be more vigilant than ever if I hoped to witness take-off.

7:58 a.m. I could barely see five pairs of black wingtips flapping westward across a white canvas.

Mark Blassage photos

Mike and I returned that night to see if the whoopers would make another appearance. Our hundreds of geese and sandhill cranes and ducks had decreased to a mere 20 geese and seven sandhills. We agreed to check once more in the morning, just to be sure we were sure they had gone.
Dec. 10 was a clear day, though it was minus 2 degrees with a windchill of minus 20. It was obvious that the whoopers weren’t there, but we thought we should wait for the sun to rise, just to be sure they didn’t fly up from somewhere unexpected. We knew better, really. We were just doing what we had become accustomed to doing: standing on the overlook platform, because that was our job. We waited. We watched. We talked. Nothing changed. Nothing moved. Nothing, except for the rising sun and our thoughts moving ahead to a new place. A place beyond this wonderful visit from the whooping cranes. A place where nothing would ever be the same. Our thoughts moved, but our bodies didn’t. We stood there, hands and feet frozen.

The sun was clearly up and marking the time when the cranes would normally take off. We could no longer pretend. Our job here was done – and yet we remained.

Eventually, like the whooping cranes, we would have to come to our senses and get out of there, or we would soon perish. Like the cranes, we left because we had to.

Driving down the frozen road, under trees hanging heavy with snow, I wondered how the Operation Migration team ever manages to say goodbye to the young whoopers after migration.

I couldn’t wait to hear where the five would be sighted next and that they made it to their warmer winter locations. I wondered whose lives they would change, what people they would bring together, whose hearts they would move next.

Editor’s Note: Mark Blassage owns Blassage Photography in Rockton, Ill. See more of his work at blassagephotography.com. Go to www.operationmigration.org and www.savingcranes.org to learn more about the endangered whooping crane. The Nygren Wetland Preserve is a restoration project of the Natural Land Institute.

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One response to “The Nygren Five: A Photographer’s Vigil”

  1. Jeff Miller says:

    Great story Mark…enjoyed it immensely.

    Keep capturing images…

    Best regards,

    Jeff Miller
    Rockford, IL