Nestled between marshy grasses and towering cattails, in a homemade blind built from zip ties, mesh fencing, and hay, Michael Forsberg readied his camera and waited for the Sandhill Cranes’ to arrive for their nightly roosting ritual. It was March, and he was trying to capture a single photo to depict the beauty of the flocking birds and the rambling Platte River—two symbols of his home state of Nebraska.
“I wanted the Sandhill Cranes to be part of a landscape picture that tied everything together,” says Forsberg, a veteran wildlife photographer who lives in Lincoln. “But with nature photography you have to fail miserably before everything comes together.” That night he waited for hours on the riverbank—like he had many nights before. After studying the cranes for decades, Forsberg was familiar with their evening roosting patterns. “When they come back to the Platte at night, they don’t just plop in . . . they run the river up and down, inspecting different mid-river shallow sandbars,” he says. As the first squadron of birds flew in, he trained a wide-angle lens on it and started clicking away.
Now, nearly a year later, one of the resulting images is being turned into a new U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Forever Stamp to commemorate Nebraska’s 150th anniversary. The special-edition piece is on sale in Nebraska post offices and online starting today. It will be available through 2017.
Landing a spot on a U.S. stamp is no small feat. Of the 40,000 candidates USPS considers each year, only 20 to 25 make the cut. The rigorous, months-long vetting process starts with art directors and researchers who seek out artists, illustrators, and photographers with a strong connection to the represented state, says William Gicker, USPS Creative Director and Manager of Stamp Development Services. Once the initial selections are made, the governor and state-anniversary committee weigh in on the final image.
In Forsberg’s case, the achievement is even more extraordinary: It’s the second time he’s been picked as a USPS finalist. In 2001, a photo he took of the Nine Mile Prairie in Lincoln was selected for an international airmail stamp. But this time, the combination of an iconic setting and the iconic birds won him the honors. “Michael's images of the Sandhill Cranes stood out to us because they are crisp and in high contrast against the sky and unique and specific to Nebraska,” Gicker says. According to USPS Information Technology Vice President Jeffrey Johnson, “The stunning photograph captures just a small glimpse of Nebraska’s natural beauty.”
That beauty is something many bird buffs are familiar with. Every spring nearly 500,000 cranes descend on the sandbars in the Platte River while traveling up to their breeding grounds in Canada and the Great Lakes. The spectacle, which draws birders and photographers from around the world, kicks off with Audubon Nebraska’s annual crane festival in mid-March.
Forsberg also has a long history of documenting cranes on the Platte, which he describes as “the pinch in the hourglass of the Central Flyway,” with birds from across the Midwest funneling through during migration. The photographer was introduced to the lanky species in high school by his grandparents, who lived near the river. Since then he’s explored the legacy of the cranes both in and beyond Nebraska. For his book On Ancient Wings, published in 2004, he spent five years photographing Sandhill habitat across the Eastern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Cuba. “I really fell in love with the cranes during that project,” Forsberg says.
He’s now working on a new venture called the Platte Basin Timelapse project, which uses 50 time-lapse cameras to track the 90,000-square-mile watershed that flows between the northern Rocky Mountains and the Platte River. The series aims to make viewers conscious of where their water comes from, while giving them insight on the kinds of wildlife that rely on the Midwestern oasis. The Sandhill Crane is one of those species. Heavy commercial agriculture is cutting into the historic grassland ecosystem that supports the birds; the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies below, is threatened by fossil fuel extraction and pollution.
“Sandhill Cranes have been flying over this landscape for thousands and thousands of years,” Forsberg says. “Just imagine all of the changes they’ve seen. It’s my hope that another 150 years from now we still see the same scene that we see on the stamp.”