Photographing Sandhill Cranes

By Cynthia Lyons

One stopover on the annual migration of the Sandhill Cranes has become an annual pilgrimage for many nature and wildlife

photographers.  This once nearly extinct bird, with numbers as low as 50 total birds in the 1920’s, has rebounded to an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 birds, thanks in part to dedicated refuges such as the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge (HWR) in Meigs County, Tennessee.  This excellent habitat for the Sandhill Cranes and other birds is a perfect stopover on their annual migration from the Canadian tundra to their traditional wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida.  Sandhills are big, beautiful cranes with a unique call, known as bugling or trumpeting.  You can find more information on Sandhill Cranes, and hear their calls at and

These beauties are a challenge to photograph because it is often difficult to get in close.  They tend to keep their distance from humans when possible, and HWR makes it easy for them to do so.  The birds are free to roam anywhere, but the humans are kept behind fences at the observation platform.  The river and marshes also form a natural barrier between birds and humans.  It is therefore important to come prepared with the right equipment and clothing to capture these gorgeous, standoffish and fast flying birds.

Equipment:  Camera: Use a D-SLR (or film camera) with interchangeable lenses.  Try to keep it warm between shots by putting it inside your coat.

  1. Lens: Use as long a lens as possible, but at least 400mm.  It is not necessary to spend a fortune to do this.  Good used lenses are available from several retailers for reasonable prices.  Alternatively, lens rentals are gaining popularity and offer photographers a chance to “test drive” a lens for a few days, for a very reasonable price.
  2. Battery: BRING EXTRA.  Cold temperatures drain batteries more quickly than normal.  Keep the extras in a pocket to keep them warm until used.
  3. Shooting tips: Use the sports mode (or the “continuous shooting” function if shooting in manual mode) and use settings that allow for the fastest shutter speed possible under the lighting circumstances.  Increase the ISO, or use Auto ISO, to shoot at 1/500 sec. or faster.  Shooting at fast shutter speeds generally makes a tripod unnecessary.

Clothing:  Layers.  Pay special attention to the fingers, as cold fingers may be the no. 1 problem faced by photographers working outside in winter.

Where to go:  The observation platform in the refuge is a good spot, as is the Blythe Ferry boat ramp.  Directions to both locations can be found with a Google search.  Dramatic sunrise images, with or without the cranes, can be had by arriving by dawn at the boat ramp.  The Sandhill Cranes also feed on grains in the surrounding farm fields, so driving around the area can also produce closer-up photo opportunities.


When to go:   Sandhill Cranes are plentiful at HWR from mid-December through mid-February, so bundle up, get outside and get shooting!