For the Birds Radio Program: Sandhill Crane Migration
Every year right around Valentine’s Day, even though it’s still clearly winter, Sandhill Cranes start feeling twitterpated. These birds mate for life, and pairs remain together even during winter when they don’t feel romantic stirrings in the least—their devotion to one another clearly transcends seasonal hormonal levels. Pairs start moving north in early or mid-February, heading for special migratory stopovers called staging grounds. Each pair will feed and socialize on one staging ground for about a month before moving on to their actual breeding grounds.
Sandhill Cranes that breed in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan migrate through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia, and winter in southern Georgia and central Florida. Most of these birds spend their staging period at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana. This population is growing, but isn’t nearly as huge as the Mid-continent population, which breeds in Canada west of Hudson and James Bays and in Alaska and Siberia and winters in Texas and New Mexico. And 80–90 percent of this population spends up to 6 weeks on its staging grounds along the Platte River in Nebraska, almost entirely between Grand Island and Kearney.
I’ve had the wonderful good fortune to witness the spectacular crane migration four different years. In past years, they’ve been reaching the Platte usually right around Valentine’s Day, though with warming trends, they’re occasionally appearing in January now. The Wisconsin flock is appearing in Wisconsin earlier and earlier, too—this year, one was reported from northern Rock County just south of Lake Koshkonong on February 14. And another spent the entire winter near Lynxville in Crawford County, visiting a bird feeder for daily meals. Since 1998, Sandhill Cranes have made appearances along the Lower Wisconsin Riverway in the Wauzeka to Muscoda area each year starting in mid- to late-February.
If it’s cool to see a single crane, or a pair, in February, seeing tens of thousands on their staging grounds is breathtaking. If you head down to Nebraska in early March, you can enjoy literally millions of Snow Geese migrating overhead, sparkling like salt and pepper specks in the sky, and feeding on corn stubble with the cranes. By mid-March, when the number of cranes reaches its peak, most of the geese are gone. By month’s end, most crane pairs have bulked up, and their high levels of body fat along with the rapidly increasing day length have augmented their hormone levels so that more and more pairs are dancing.
What’s the best time to go and see this magnificent spectacle? There isn’t a single best time. You’re going to see plenty of cranes whenever you go during March. If you want to see lots of geese too, get there during the first ten days or so. If you want to see the hugest numbers of cranes, do during mid-month. If you want to see the most dancing, head there the last 10 days of the month.
The loveliest times of day to spend with cranes are when the night sky is first growing light and the cranes, who sleep on the river, are just beginning to stir, their soft calls swelling until it sounds as if the entire earth were purring. As the sky grows pinker, you can pick out more and more individual bird calls, and the sounds continue to swell until the sun rises. The first Bald Eagle cruising above the water looking for breakfast sends huge flocks aloft, the sheer volume of their cries and beating wings a thrilling sound. Within a half hour or 45 minutes or so, all the flocks have left the river. During daylight hours you can cruise the country roads watching feeding flocks in the cornfields. Then as the sun grows low, the cranes start gathering on the river for the night. Watching thousands of pairs and family groups flying in against the setting sun is one of the most breathtaking sights on a planet filled with glorious sights. You can get links to the Audubon Sanctuary’s website and lots of other information about the crane migration on my blog. Just go to www.lauraerickson.com.