Every so often a flutter of activity is spawned in the northern extremes of the Adirondack Park (Clinton County) when a few sandhill cranes put in an appearance in a farmer’s field or nearby wetland. Sandhills are not common birds in the eastern US, and most of the Adirondacks is a bit too mountainous for their tastes. So it’s to the lowlands and the agricultural belts around the Park’s perimeter that these birds head if they come here at all.
This last weekend I was in Michigan, where I got to witness the migrating sandhill cranes as they flew in to their evening roost at the Haenhle Audubon Sanctuary. A lone whooping crane, a highly endangered species, joined them in some late afternoon snacking in the marsh, much to the great delight of the dozens of spectators who stood on the chilly hillside to witness the spectacle.
Now, to be honest, I never really gave cranes much thought. To me they were simply another “foreign” bird that I was unlikely to see (I’m not the kind of birder who will travel to the ends of the earth to add a particular bird to a lifetime checklist). There were a couple white-naped cranes at the zoo where I used to work, and I knew that of the fifteen crane species worldwide, ten are listed as threatened, critically rare, or vulnerable throughout their ranges, but that was about it.
The tall, long-necked, wading wetland birds with which I am most familiar are great blue herons, which to the untrained eye look a lot like cranes. Both are tall, long-necked, and wade about it wetlands. But the heron, despite outward appearances, is not a crane. And neither are the various egrets that sometimes turn up in ponds and wetlands within the Blue Line.
If one wants to get into specifics, one can start with the fact that herons are in the family Ardeidae (which includes the egrets and bitterns), and cranes are in the Rallidae family. When a heron flies, it tucks its neck back into its body; a crane flies with its neck stretched way out in front, much like a Canada goose. Herons flap their wings with slow up and down movements, while cranes flap slowly downwards, but have a more rapid up-stroke.
I saw my first pair of wild cranes Saturday morning. I was driving northward into southern Michigan when a pair of long birds flew across the road and out over a farmer’s field. I did a double take – those weren’t herons! The wings were all wrong, and the outline didn’t seem right. They had to be cranes, I thought. A short while later, another pair flew by. There was no doubt left in my mind – these were cranes.
The third pair I heard long before I saw them. I was walking along a trail at a nature sanctuary when through the woods I heard this strange croaking call. It was a sound I’d never heard before, and I thought to myself “those can only be cranes” (had I been back here in the Adirondacks, I might’ve written it off as a raven experimenting with its vocal cords). I walked a little faster, heading toward the field I could see up ahead, hoping I just might see the birds out foraging. No luck – they were on the wing and a few seconds later I watched as they passed above the trees in front of me.
I was thrilled, but at the same time disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a closer look.
When I mentioned the cranes an hour later to the gentleman who was manning the gift shop, he told me of the nearby Audubon sanctuary where hundreds of sandhills were coming in to roost every evening. Why, they had over 2000 the other night! I pulled out my road map and with much pointing and the drawing of lines, we had worked out the directions to get me there.
When my interview concluded later that afternoon, my new friends all encouraged me to head to the sanctuary. Grab a bite to eat, go to the refuge and sit back to enjoy the show – that was their advice.
So, I stopped for a quick dinner, then, braving the road construction and some confusing detours, I wound my way toward Haenhle. When I got there, the parking lot was nearly full. I found a spot, changed into my Bean boots, and, laden with camera and binocs, headed into the fields.
It was early evening, the sun only just headed toward the horizon, and already the birds were arriving in pairs and small groups. Some flew in fairly low (we could see their toes), while others were high enough to be merely silhouettes. We could hear them coming long before they arrived – their harsh calls can carry up to a mile in good weather.
They glided in, losing altitude as they neared the marsh. They then spilled the wind from their wings, and put down their landing gear – those long, gangly legs that trail out behind when the birds are in flight. With some back winging, they gently settled in to the shallow water to preen and feed.
As each group arrived, the hushed crowd of human spectators would gasp and murmur at the sight. Spotting scopes caught individual birds as they hopped and fluttered among the grasses and their peers. A lined formed to view the whooping crane, which was lurking behind some shrubbery, barely visible.
Now I knew why the Adirondack birding community gets all excited when a report comes in across the wires that a group of sandhills has been spotted in Farmer John’s field up in Rouses Point. To catch a glimpse of these ancient birds (a fossilized sandhill crane bone was found in Nebraska that was dated at over nine-million years old, making these birds among the oldest lineages on Earth) is to witness a bit of pre-history that still walks among us.