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Narrative: Sandhill cranes and a photographer

On wildlife, photography and a memorable encounter
Despite a long history, only 15 species of sandhill cranes are left in the world today – two in North America. Sierra Lundy Illistration

As a way of coping through the pandemic, I enrolled in an online biology course with the University of Victoria and learned there are 10,000 species of birds. Charmed by a description of the adaptable sandhill crane, one of the oldest living bird species in the world, I remembered a story I had heard a few years earlier.

Bil Lingard told me he knew early on that he wanted to be a photographer. Under the guidance of a favourite uncle, he was developing film in a “pudding dish” at eight years old.

“In my 60 years of professional photography, I have only one shot that completely pleases me from the perspective of subject, composition and the cooperation of the subject – a pair of sandhill cranes standing almost eye to eye with me.”

Bil spoke with the intensity of a 12-year-old boy having fun. He placed a postcard-sized image on the coffee table and told me about a pair of sandhill cranes he photographed at a tidal brook near his home in Florida. He described the painstaking process of capturing his perfect image.

“Two sandhill cranes came down the creek by my house every day for several months. From a distance, I watched in awe without a thought of shooting. The magnificent wading birds did their elegant and ancient dance and I listened to their powerful bugle-ish calls.”

Bil thought through his plan carefully. He knew that much was out of his control.

“I sat, impossibly still, in the marshy landscape so that they could get used to my presence. As I watched their long spindly black legs, grey-brown bodies, white throats, long sharp bills and red crowns, I was mesmerized by the graceful, bouncing hops as the gangly birds landed. I could understand why some birders see a synchronized and sensual tango in their movements.

“I decided I had to shoot late in the afternoon for ideal lighting.

“Each day, moving in a barely discernible way, I inched closer. I could easily fathom how sandhill cranes were once considered good eating. Those birds are almost five feet tall.”

In the 1850s, sandhill cranes were sold in San Francisco for $20 as a turkey substitute. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 stopped the practice due to overhunting.

“When the day came, and the lighting and background were perfect, I collected my camera and made my way to the planned spot. I waited a long time without making a sound; and then, when it felt just right, when they were close enough, I stomped my foot and startled one of them. He lifted both of his wings in an aggressive display, and I got the shot.”

Ornithology-wise, Bil’s picture shows all characteristics of the birds. Both sides, male and female, broad wings outstretched and wings down.

“That picture pleases me terrifically,” he said. “Looking at it feels like a ‘moment of truth.’ I couldn’t have done that picture with a digital camera. When you print to that size, the process would bleed colours.”

While Bil’s description of stomping his foot to get a reaction from the bird was honest, I have learned that it is not in keeping with the ethical practices of wildlife photography today – which are to not disturb subjects or provoke behaviours that they don’t do on their own.

Three years after he took the shot, Bil told me, he went back to the site and the stream had dried up. Development took over the area and there were no more wondrous flying vertebrates with their lightweight skeletons of hollow bones full of airspace. The sandhill cranes, some of the last remaining ancestors of the dinosaurs, and creatures more evolved than mammals, had disappeared from Bil’s neighbourhood. The natural feeding environment and wetland home to the magnificent birds had been paved over; built on; gone forever.

Bil decided not to publish the best photograph of his working life. He made 24- by 30-inch prints and a postcard-size version as gifts for family and friends.

I wrote to Bil’s daughter in Florida and told her the story her father had told me many years ago. She kindly offered to send the related photograph. I wondered what I might discover in studying the image never published commercially.

When the print arrived from its pandemically delayed, four-week-long, 5,200-kilometre journey, rolled in a postal tube, I had it solidly mounted and propped up on my desk, two feet from my face.

While the world was sinking into despair with daily reports of the mounting tally of COVID-19 losses and continued devastating news coverage on the scientific findings on climate change, I decided to stare at Bil’s work while reading about sandhill cranes from a stash of carefully selected library books. I wanted to try to understand why this image captivated the photographer; why it was so close to his professional heart.

To my non-birder, non-photographer eyes, at first it was just a big picture of a couple of big birds. The National Geographic Field Guide for Photographing Birds helped me begin to discern Bil’s work.

Were the birds well-suited old mates? Courting youth? Feeding for their nearby young? Did the unique sandhill crane gait capture Bil? Was it the verdant Eden-esque landscape? Or the preternatural lighting? The more I observed his work, the more too-late questions I had for the late photographer.

I can’t tell you about the camera or the lenses or the F-stops he used, but I can tell you that the photograph was taken by a person with a strong moral compass. I only met the elderly man once for a couple of hours at a friend’s house in Victoria, when he told me this:

“I don’t want to be at the wheel of my car when I drop dead. My reactions are not quick enough. So, I volunteered to give up my driver’s license. It would be terrible to kill someone at my age because my reflexes have slowed.”

You just know a person like that will have a thoughtful reason for the way they approach their photography.

As I learned in my biology course, gruiform birds have the best fossil records of any avian order and stretch back over 80 million years. Despite that glorious history, only 15 species of sandhill cranes are left in the world today – two in North America.

Sandhill cranes are known for being wary, always raising their heads to look around while feeding. But apparently not wary enough. Even their highly evolved lifelong pair bonding, a characteristic behaviour that likely added to their tenacious and staggering survival history, will not help them in 2022. Recently, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology noted that three billion birds have disappeared since 1970.

In my pandemically inspired biology course – thanks to the UVic continuing education program – I learned that birds are very old, and humans, a much younger species, are wiping them out. Bil Lingard’s hauntingly beautiful still image depicts a microcosmic reminder of humanity’s terrible loss. There may not be many beautiful Bil Lingards left either.

This narrative appeared in the spring 2023 Central Island edition of Boulevard magazine