Breakfast with 10,000 Cranes

Cranes, migration, Hula Valley, Israel, Halevi
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Ten thousand cranes are a sight to behold. They honk. They wade. They preen. They fish. Mostly, though, they glide gracefully through the air as they shuttle from their roost to a nearby field where a breakfast of eight tons of corn awaits them. This daily feeding frenzy, served up by a conglomeration of government and non-profit organizations, maintains peace between local farmers and the itinerant birds.

Strategically located at the midpoint between northern Europe and Africa, Israel’s Hula Valley has for years been both  a rest stop and winter resort for millions of migratory birds. While birding in Israel is possible throughout the year, this annual event reaches its peak between November and January in the Hula’s watery setting.

Our guide phoned us the evening prior to our visit to inform us that we had to start out a half hour ahead of our original plan, at  5:15 a.m., because the cranes were taking off earlier. We arrived in the dark and were admitted to the Hula Reserve and proceeded quietly to a spot near the water’s edge as the first pink hues of dawn appeared in the sky.

I am not a wildlife or bird photographer and equipped with a measly 200mm telephoto, captured a few memorable images of this annual winter spectacle. Unless startled, the birds don’t take to the air en masse, but rather fly in small groups. Using the continuous motion setting on my Nikon D-700, I was able to track focus and keep the birds sharp as the flew silently overhead, propelled forward by the near-effortless – flapping of their six-foot wingspan.

This shot was made during the 10 minutes of peak color at sunrise. It’s a tricky undertaking, with many shots discarded because the birds are out of alignment or their wings are positioned less dramatically. I like this shot because it shows only birds in flight through a boundless sky. It is there, above, in the air, where birds transcend our human abilities and display for us the most wondrous gift.

TECHNICAL DATA: Camera: Nikon D700, handheld, aperture priority, matrix metering mode, f/5.0 at 1/320 sec, ISO 800. Raw file converted to Jpeg. Lens: Nikon 70-200 VR zoom at 110 mm. Date: Nov. 13, 2014, 5:54 a.m. Location: Hula Valley Reserve, northern Israel.

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