Saturday, October 30, 2010

Field Trip: Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski FWA

Last night I had the great pleasure of joining a group to see the migrating sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana.  Our group was led by the exceptionally knowledgeable naturalist Kip Miller, of Love Creek Park in Berrien Springs, Michigan.  I learned so much from Kip, but any mistaken facts here are strictly my own!

The cranes spend their summers far north -- as far as Canada's frozen tundra.  But as the days begin to shorten, their instincts call them south.  The thousands of cranes who meet up in Indiana are headed to Florida, as were many of the folks gathered on the observation deck.  Other groups might travel to Texas or New Mexico, via another major staging area in Nevada.

We arrived about an hour before sunset.  Initially there were scattered groups of cranes in the field, joined by a herd of deer.  As the minutes passed, increasing groups began to fly in from the southeast and the east.  The sound of the cranes approaching is unmistakeable!

Cranes are omnivorous, eating seeds and grass and bugs and the occasional mouse or snake.  They gather each evening at this field, seemingly sharing the details of their busy days with friends and family, then as dark settles they travel just northwest of where we stood to a marsh.  Cranes sleep with their feet wet.  Who knew?

But until it was dark, we enjoyed the flyovers.

They arrive mostly in family groups.  A successful pair of cranes will hatch one or two chicks each season, so most of the families are three or four together.  As my untrained eye became more accustomed to watching, I could see these groupings.


Kip brought a high powered telescope through which we could see amazing detail on the birds.  The adults have a red patch on their heads.   Sorry you cannot recognize it in my photos!  As they gather on the ground in the field, they do a maneuver where they poke the ground with their long beaks and toss a clod of dirt into the air.  There is also a bit of dancing with their wings whirling around, though at this time of year it wouldn't be a mating ritual, I don't think.

We hoped that the cranes would have a mass fly-up to their marsh for us, but as it grew darker it was clear that they would relocate in smaller groups.  At one point we heard a large group from far across the field make their move -- it sounded a bit like a huge windstorm, and I expect if you are nearby it must feel that way as well!

The birds grew more quiet. The air grew more brisk and I admit I had thoughts of leaving. But then, off in the distance, we heard the start of coyotes calling. Lots of coyotes. A chilling sound of howls and calls among quite a few animals.

The birds heard it, too.

Their chatter suddenly changed tone, and in a rising crescendo, they rose up. Listen.

Simply amazing. 

The cranes gather at Jasper-Pulaski through November, before continuing their exodus to Florida.  Dawn and dusk at the times to experience the greatest activity, and I highly recommend a field trip.


MaryEllen Schneider said...

Wow, it must be incredible to actually be there, Johanna. Thanks for sharing--loved the sunset shot. That sound is amazing.

The JR said...

Cool, what a great event to be able to witness.