When you take time and traverse areas that feature various natural wonders, you see some awe-inspiring sights.
One species not many people see in the wild is a Sandhill crane. Known for being shy and secretive, one may hear the bird’s unique call, but rarely spot this huge species because it blends so well in its environment. I have seen these birds in Michigan a few times, but spotted my first ones in Ohio while driving along the causeway in Magee Marsh Wildlife Area last spring. I literally saw thousands of them last Monday on a visit to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area in Medaryville, Ind.
These large birds, which are sandy in color and have a distinctive red cap on their head, migrate through that area twice a year. And they may number as many as 30,000 during these trips. Juvenile cranes do not have a red crown, but have a reddish cast to their feathers.
As of Monday, nearly 11,000 of these birds had been counted on the area in northwest Indiana about an hour’s drive north of Lafayette. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Sandhill Cranes, “give loud, rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds and often strung together. They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away and are given on the ground as well as in flight, when the flock may be very high and hard to see. They also give moans, hisses, gooselike honks, and snoring sounds. Chicks give trills and purrs.”
Visitors must sign in at a self service check station on the area. We could hear the multitude of cranes just after sunrise before we made it to the Goose Pasture Viewing Area, which features a platform and offers telescopes. It is suggested you bring you own good set of binoculars.
Best viewing times are sunrise and sunset when thousands of these tall birds congregate in the roosting marshes on the wildlife area where they socialize. In the mornings, they head out to local farm fields (corn and soybean) where they feed and also perform their ritual dance to reinforce their bond with their mate. One can easily spot the cranes on private bean and corn fields by driving down gravel roads just outside the wildlife area. Some fields may have as few as 10-20 birds while others may have upwards to 100 or more. They are leery of humans and you are lucky to get with 30 yards of them in a vehicle along the road. You could track them for hours in these private fields.
Sandhill crane pairs usually bond for years. About an hour before sunset they return to Goose Pasture and again socialize before roosting for the night. While commonly seen feeding on grains in agriculture fields, sandhill cranes also eat frogs, fish and insects along with both terrestrial and aquatic plant life, fruits and seeds.
These raucous birds like wetlands and Jasper-Pulaski area is a perfect habitat for them. The more than 8,000 acres offer a large wetland area, one of the few in existence in the Midwest. Habitat there includes marshes, wet grasslands and river basins.
Cranes are different than most migrating species. Many birds migrate alone or synchronize their migration so that entire populations leave their breeding territories and move southward en masse. Cranes stage before migration. Individual cranes, small flocks and family groups start to gather in late September and early October on “staging areas” – wetlands where they roost together overnight as they prepare to migrate. The flocks on Jasper-Pulaski grow through October and peak late in mid November and early December.
They learn the migration route from their parents. Hence over the years, thousands gather on staging areas like Jasper-Pulaski. The birds primary winter nesting area is in Florida.
The cranes seen at Jasper-Pulaski are from Eastern population of the greater Sandhill crane.
Cranes are found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and to a degree in southern Canada. They also nest in Indiana and Illinois and in recent years have begun to nest in Ohio.
The Sandhill crane is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The year 2016 marks the centennial of the Convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds (also called the Migratory Bird Treaty), signed on Aug. 16, 1916. Three other treaties were signed shortly thereafter with Japan, Russia and Mexico. The Migratory Bird Treaty, the three other treaties signed later, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act form the cornerstones of efforts to conserve birds that migrate across international borders.
Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL