Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

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Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away
[originally posted October 2, 2008]

It’s a disappointing fact of life for residents of east central Illinois that we have few opportunities to experience wildlife in great abundance. We have forest patches, prairie reconstructions, and stream corridors where we can observe and hunt and fish, but these fragmentary habitats aren’t home to great numbers of many creatures, unless you count insects. But fall brings us the opportunity to witness a truly impressive concentration of one magnificent species of bird only a couple of hours away. It’s the gathering of southward bound sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.

As of this week there are some 200-300 sandhill cranes at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next month and a half until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November. This is a small fraction of the better known sandhill crane gathering that takes place on the Platte River in Nebraska each year, but it is still a remarkable sight to behold.

Sandhill cranes are among the largest birds that occur in North America. They stand about four feet tall, and have a wingspan that may stretch from six to seven feet. With their long legs and neck they bear some resemblance to the great blue herons that we can see year round, but sandhill cranes are identifiable by their uniformly gray plumage and bald head, which is bright red in adults. If you want to impress your friends by distinguishing between cranes and herons in flight, you need only remember that flying cranes stretch their necks out straight forward, while herons curve theirs back against the body in an “S.” Cranes are also far more gregarious than great blue herons, and it is typical to see them flying together in flocks that stretch out like long ribbons in the sky, rather than alone, as herons do. Adult crane pairs remain together year round, and crane young born in spring and summer stick with their parents through the southward migration in fall.

You will often know that sandhill cranes are coming before you see them from their bugling calls, which carry great distances, and sound as ancient as anything you’ll hear. And sandhill cranes should sound ancient. Their skeletal structure is identical to that of a 10 million-year-old crane fossil that was found in Nebraska, which makes them the oldest known species of bird now living on earth.

The most fascinating thing sandhill cranes do is dance. As they come together in the evening prior to roosting they seem to charge each other up, like children arriving at a birthday party. First one bows, and flaps its wings then does a little leap into the air. Then its neighbors join in and the energy ripples through the larger flock.

The best way to see large numbers of sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area is to spend an hour or two before sunset at the observation deck. There you can watch the cranes come in to a grassy field where they gather before flying out to roost in the marshes at night. If you arrive earlier in the day you can see individual cranes and smaller flocks in harvested agricultural fields nearby. Binoculars are essential for this trip, and a more powerful spotting scope is helpful if you have access to one.

Details about viewing sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski are available on the web through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. In addition, you may want to check in with the Champaign County Audubon Society, which conducts a field trip to see the cranes in November.