Erik Johnson Photography: Blog en-us (C) Erik Johnson Photography [email protected] (Erik Johnson Photography) Sun, 22 Mar 2020 18:02:00 GMT Sun, 22 Mar 2020 18:02:00 GMT Erik Johnson Photography: Blog 120 105 Sand-barred From Society

     Amidst the coronavirus concerns and social distancing orders in place to help mitigate its spread, I decided to spend a weekend in mid-March at the most fitting location I could think of: a lone photography blind perched on the edge of a sandbar in the middle of Nebraska’s Platte River.

     Chad Gideon, owner of Crane Cabin Retreat, and Eric Fowler, NEBRASKAland Magazine Author and Photographer, constructed the blind to provide an up-close encounter to the annual sandhill crane migration that occurs each spring on a stretch of the river near Kearney, Nebraska. An estimated 80% of all cranes on the planet converge at this bottleneck before continuing north to their nesting grounds, the same ritual they’ve repeated for thousands of years. While most blinds at the river’s banks provide a 180 degree view at best, this blind allows for a unique viewing experience as cranes fill in from nearly all sides.

     Historically described as being a “mile wide and an inch deep” – crossing the river does require a good pair of waders as water depths more realistically range from ankle deep to waste deep, depending on the chosen route. Ripples on the surface are a good indicator that the sandy bottom is not far off – smooth waters signal one might need to be more cautious with each step. To bring supplies to the blind, the night’s necessities must be loaded into a small sled that can be portaged across the river. For me, this included my camera equipment, sleeping bag and blanket, cooler, and enough propane bottles for a small heater to help take the edge off the cold night.

The night's gear in tow with the overnight blind visible in the background

     Upon reaching the sandbar I transferred the contents of the sled into the blind and hid the plastic shell among the island’s vegetation. The birds are weary and skittish at this point in their migration and will avoid landing near anything that appears out of the norm – thankfully the blind itself is covered in a heavy camouflage of grasses.  I hunkered down, cracked open a beer, and waited for the show to get started.

A Mr. Heater "Buddy" - the second most important piece of gear after a camera

     This particular evening was overcast, with a wet snowfall from the night before still clinging to the trees on the shoreline. The birds began congregating on the river as the light faded, first starting several hundred yards downstream and eventually working their way towards the blind. A crane’s approach to the water’s surface is oddly captivating as they drift downward and position their skinny legs out in front, as if deploying landing gear and preparing for impact. 1 by 1, tens by tens, thousands by thousands, they gather in the shallows where they will remain standing throughout the night. By dark, birds had filled in within 15 yards from the blind to the north and east. My ears were filled with their calls, a grand symphony perfected over millions of years.

Legs extended, a crane braces for impact on the riverbed

     I’ve noticed a few things about the behavior of cranes while spending evenings along the Platte. To some degree, their distinctive, rattling calls continue through the entire night. It seems that groups take turns chattering – presumably to keep watch as others take time to rest their heads and catch some sleep for the day ahead. Occasionally you’ll notice an abrupt end to their calls followed by the turbulent roar of hundreds of wings as a group takes flight. Perhaps a coyote was spotted at the river’s edge or maybe a great horned owl took perch too close for comfort. Some things remain a mystery in the dark of night.

Cranes flock to their nightly roost under the watchful eye of a bald eagle

     The next morning is when I really had the chance to fire up my camera. As light filled the riverbed, I rested my telephoto lens on one of the blind’s window edges and observed the mass of birds no further than a feather’s drift away. Each bird has its own personality – some are busy pecking at the water for a drink, some meander from group to group, a few playfully interact with each other as part of their courtship dancing routine. This involves an array of different movements, such as bowing, jumping, wing flapping, and or a blend of all three. A crane’s jumping dance is much like my first ever childhood attempt at a backflip off the diving board: an awkward flail into the air that netted no rotation and still somehow ended with me landing feet first into the pool. I’ve yet to see a crane fall flat but give it enough time and I’m sure it could happen.

A pair of cranes perform their courtship dance at sunrise

     Cranes leave their river roost to head to the surrounding fields to feed during the day – an energy capture they capitalize on before continuing the rest of the way on their long migration. On this dreary morning, groups began taking off one-by-one, until the river was empty with no evidence of the previous night’s commotion. I retrieved the sled and began preparations to return to civilization.

A group leaves the roost, heading to the fields to feed for the day

     Whether you’re new to social distancing or perhaps it’s always been a way of life, one thing is for certain: Nature has a way of soothing and providing a healthy escape from reality during these uncertain times. These birds have, and will continue to, make their pilgrimage through Nebraska. Society has, and will continue to, find a way to prevail – and like a crane, always land on its feet, no matter how floundering the jump might seem.

A crane's breath is visible as it calls out

Made from 8 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker 1.7.0. Algorithm: Min Horizon Noise A roost under the Milky Way galaxy

Chad's overnight blind (as well as a more refined cabin) is available for booking - please consider supporting Nebraska ecotourism by contacting him through his Facebook:

[email protected] (Erik Johnson Photography) Blind Great Plains Kearney Local Migration Nebraska Nikon Photographer Photography Sandhill Cranes Wildlife Photography Sun, 22 Mar 2020 04:47:35 GMT
My Top 10 Favorite Photos From 2017 With the start of the new year, I wanted to look back and reflect on some of my favorite shots from 2017.  The year was full of travel, with thousands of miles put on spanning between Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming.  My focus this year was definitely on my home state, but taking some time to visit the striking landscapes of my neighboring states was definitely a bonus! 

So, in no particular order:

#1: "The Unveiling" - Kebler Pass, Colorado

During the first week of October, my girlfriend, dog, and I spent a week exploring the southern Colorado Rockies.  Early October is a bit late to catch Aspen trees still holding leaves on the Front Range but we timed it perfectly to see a great show further south near the towns of Telluride, Crested Butte, and Ridgway.  This was really the first time I've devoted a good chunk of time to experience Fall in the mountains, and I have to say it was an awesome experience.  Not only were the aspens beautiful shades of yellow and golds, the smaller scrub oak bushes were also vivid golds and reds and filled in the voids between the taller trees.  I'd like to make it a point to visit the Rockies every Fall from here on out.  

This photo was taken specifically at Kebler Pass, where we spent two nights, once at the beginning of the week and the other at the end.  Out of all the locations we visited, this area was definitely at the most "peak" of Aspen color.  This small path is located just off the main pass and created a perfect leading line to the distant peak.  The fog and light breaking through to the aspen veins on the mountainside pulled the scene together perfectly.

#2: "Stillwaters" - Priest Lake, Idaho

It seems like much of my family is migrating to the Pacific Northwest, with my brother living in downtown Seattle and my sister in Spokane (WA).  As such, my sister was familiar with this scenic lake in northern Idaho and it was decided that it would be a great location for a celebration of my dad's 70th.  My immediate family stayed in a cozy little cabin right on the lake's edge and we had several days to simply hang out and enjoy the crystal clear waters.  On our last evening there a passing storm left these incredible colors burned into the sky as the sun went down.  Being so far north, the sun stays in the sky for quite a bit longer during the summer months - which allowed us to enjoy the beautiful colors for much longer than I'm accustomed to.

#3: "Switchback Showers" - Near Chadron, Nebraska

This winding forest road is located in the Pine Ridge area, situated way up in the northwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle.  I captured this shot by hiding my camera and body under a camouflage wildlife blind (essentially a large piece of cloth which was the only type of cover I had on hand), and occasionally popping out to press my shutter.  Somehow, I managed to keep my lens dry as the rain moved through the valley.  It was quite the experience as the rain created a veil over the landscape and a bright rainbow shined across the sky to my back.

On a side note, this photo secured a 1st place in its category in this year's NEBRASKAland magazine's photo contest, details will be in January's edition.

#4 - "Auroral Reflections" 

Here is a shot I caught mid-summer near the town of Valentine in north-central Nebraska.  I had planned this photo during a previous trip there, and knew that this northward view would be perfect to capture the northern light's reflection in the windmill's tank.  By checking the forecasted KP index, it's possible to get an idea if the northern lights are possible over the next 2-3 days (A KP of 5 or more is needed).  Even then, it's mostly just chance if the lights will be visible this far south.  That being said, I noticed on a Thursday evening that the KP that weekend was going to be elevated so I left town the following day.  I got into position late in the evening and set my camera up to take photos automatically through the night... sure enough as I scrolled through the memory card the next morning I found a couple keepers from the 64 GB my camera recorded.  And by a second stroke of luck, there was also a meteor visible in the shot.

#5: "Praire Pastels" - Near Thedford, Nebraska

I found this curving path on public land near the town of Thedford, Nebraska.  I love exploring these routes that are cut through the endless Sandhills - 4WD is definitely a necessity!  This location is also one of my favorite camping spots before heading further west... it's scenic, the night sky is incredible, and you are absolutely guaranteed to not meet another soul.  It seems like every summer night I've been here I have seen lightning on the horizon - probably due to being able to see for miles and to the sky being so dark which allows any source of light to travel from afar.  

#6: "Paradise Pool" - Kebler Pass, Colorado

This is another shot from Kebler Pass, which was taken on the last morning there before heading home.  The area is full of little side dirt roads, which were muddy messes due to the recent rainfall.  Deciding to put my truck's four-wheel drive to use, we took one of the side roads that seemed particularly inviting.  My Toyota made it through like a champ and at the end of the path we found this beautiful pond surrounded by vibrant Aspens.  The reflection was perfect, with the fallen leaves creating a perfect border along the perimeter.  

#7: "Barn Burner" - Near Elmwood, Nebraska

Lots of times, if I'm sitting at home and a storm rolls in near sunset, I'm out the door in a heartbeat.  Nothing contributes to better light at sunset than passing weather.  This image was taken in such a scenario.  I left my house and drove southeast until I found this barn near the town of Elmwood.  I waited a bit and sure enough the setting sun made the clouds above the barn burst into color. 

It's usually hit or miss if I'll walk away with a good shot in situations like these.  Trying to find a good subject will leave me running around like a chicken with it's head cut off, but on those occasions that the subject matter AND light work together make it all worth it.

#8: "Passing Time" - Near Schuyler, Nebraska

Without a doubt, this abandoned church is one of my favorite subjects to photograph in Nebraska.  It's located all alone down a nondescript gravel road, miles away from the nearest town. 

The church itself is about 2 hours from my house, so it's always a gamble if conditions are going to be right.  To the point I made in the previous caption, this photo was the result of storm not quite working in my favor.  The sun's light did not break through the clouds.  However, I decided to work with what I had and took a shot from behind my windshield as I waited in my truck, which led to this somewhat abstract photo.  

#9: "Firefly Night" - Near Wilbur, Nebraska

One of the reasons I enjoy photography is that it allows for such a degree of creativity.  In this case, I combined around 40 exposures to create a layering of the paths of hundred of fireflies over the course of several hours.  Combined with the backdrop of this old barn, it really creates an image with a degree of mystery.  Maybe not a wall hanger.. but it might make a good book cover at some point down the road? ;) 

As a side note, I was actually here because there was once again an increased chance for northern lights, and this view was perfectly centered looking north.  No auroras that night.

#10: "The Lookout" - Owl Creek Pass, Colorado


Everyone that knows or follows me likely knows my dog is always with me.  So it's no surprise that this shot from our hike at Owl Creek Pass tops the list as one of my favorites from last year.  Funnily enough, I was hoping to find a view that I had seen of a beautiful valley covered in Aspens, and I thought this hike had to be what led to the overlook.  5 miles in, we realized we were nowhere near the view I had seen, and to add insult to injury, the following day we discovered that the view I was searching for was just a half mile hike from a parking lot.  You live and you learn!




Thank you for taking the time to scroll through.  The blog format is something I'd like to continue.  Please let me know your impressions or thoughts in the comments below. 

Happy New Year!



[email protected] (Erik Johnson Photography) best of 2017 blog erik johnson photography nebraska photographer top 10 Tue, 02 Jan 2018 00:14:34 GMT