The three crane species that call South Africa home beguile with their beauty, but they have a vital message to share. If these birds disappear due to vanishing habitat, we all face a difficult time. Photographer Daniel Dolpire spent five years photographing cranes to document our precious wetlands.

In spring 2013, photographer Daniel Dolpire embarked on a journey to photograph South Africa’s three crane species: blue, wattled and grey crowned crane. Little did he know it would take him five years to photograph these birds and tell their story.

In The Sentinels, a 168-page coffee-table book, Daniel brings together intimate photographs of cranes as they travel, feed, breed and raise chicks. “It’s been an amazing personal journey,” he says of the project that saw him criss-crossing the country. A map in the book highlights the best places and times of year to see cranes in South Africa.

Daniel shares some of his most treasured photographs with Wild.

This photograph of a pair of grey crowned cranes showcases the ornate physical beauty of the species, from their pale blue eyes and velvety black forehead to the spiky golden crest.

What is it about cranes that you find so captivating?

There is so much about cranes that make them fascinating and charming subjects. They are some of the most stately and spectacular of all birds. They boast striking plumage and their acrobatic dancing is a joy to witness. And then there’s that trumpeting call… such an evocative sound.

All three crane species are worth paying attention to. The blue crane is South Africa’s national bird and is found virtually nowhere else in the world. The majestic wattled crane is among the most endangered birds in the country. Perhaps the most beautiful of all, the grey crowned crane seems to be decreasing even faster than the other two.

A pair of blue cranes is starkly etched against the rippling and equally blue water lapping against their nest site on the shore. This pair was waiting for the second egg to hatch before leading both chicks off into the surrounding landscape. Notice how well camouflaged the egg is thanks to the pattern on its shell.

What did it take to get the photographs?

Firstly there is the issue of the golden hour. The best images are taken in the early morning and late afternoon. But cranes leave their roost sites before the sun comes up and return only after sunset.

To track down and photograph these special birds at locations other than roost sites, I travelled thousands of kilometres across South Africa. The great difficulty is that cranes don’t let you get close to them. When I stopped the vehicle, the birds would be 75-100m away. But by the time I had my camera ready, they’d already moved 200m away!

The only way to get close enough was to make use of hides. My first one was made of plumbing poles and hay bales, and perched on the edge of a wetland.

When heavy mist rolled into the Swartland, it complicated photography as focusing was a challenge. The final result looks like a watercolour painting, making the photographs taken this morning my favourites.

Why “The Sentinels”? What does the title of the book mean to you?

Just like a sentinel keeps guard and provides early warning of danger, cranes are indicator species for the threatened habitats they live in. Wattled and grey crowned cranes live in wetlands in the eastern half of South Africa, but they are not the only ones who rely on this environment. All living things, humans included, depend on water, so it’s vital to restore and protect these habitats.

The three stages in a wattled crane’s life – egg, youngster and adult – can all be seen in this intimate family portrait. These birds always nest in open floodplains with water.

Perhaps more than any other living creatures, cranes evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water and air upon which their species – and ours, too, though we learn it very late – must ultimately depend for survival. – Peter Matthiessen

Wattled cranes never attempt to rear more than a single chick at once. When a second egg is produced, it is abandoned once the first chick has emerged. The primary purpose of the second egg is as insurance in case the first is infertile. Conservationists are boosting the species’ numbers by rescuing these second eggs and hand-rearing chicks to be released back into the wild.

Also read: Novel way to save wattled cranes

Grey crowned cranes have broad white wings overlain with golden plumes. Their chestnut secondaries form a bustle over the tail, contributing to their elegant appearance.

With its wings spread open, this grey crowned crane demonstrates the impressive 2m wingspan of the species. During their courtship dance, grey crowned cranes pirouette with their wings open.

During the early stages, when chicks are most vulnerable, blue cranes will often keep their newly hatched chicks close to the safety of water and tall wetland vegetation.

The Sentinels (R790), with photographs by Daniel Dolpire and text by ornithologist David Allan. Published by HPH Publishing. For more information, contact Daniel Dolpire or purchase the book online.