Sandhill cranes have an elegance that draws attention, with elaborate dances and voices that boom from miles away. They are tall, with mostly gray feathers and a red cap. Cranes breed and forage in open prairies, grasslands, and wetlands. Outside of the breeding season, they often roost in deeper water of ponds or lakes, where they are safe from predators. One of the world’s oldest living birds, fossils date back to 2.5 million years old.
It is their song and dance that will capture your heart and this unique behavior makes them my favorite bird. Sandhill Cranes are very vocal birds. They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away. Mating pairs will engage in complex and extended series of unison calling. The pairs will throw their heads back and unleash a duet described as, kar-r-r-o-o-o. One of my favorite things about the Sandhill is that they are known for their remarkable dancing skills. Cranes will bow and leap in a graceful and energetic dance. They will take turns squatting down in a bow and lift their wings, then jump high in the air with wings spread throwing material into the air. They can also be seen ruffling their feathers; this ritual is not just for courtship, it helps strengthen pair bonds and for teaching the young.
One of the next things on my bucket list is to witness the beautiful natural phenomena on the Platte River in Nebraska. In March for about a month tons of cranes will migrate along the river to rest and feed before finishing migration. For any crane or bird enthusiast this would be a once and a life time experience to witness so many cranes in one area.
While living in Florida Sandhill Cranes were a common sight. One of my favorite places to visit was Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland. At times there would be large groups together and in the distance you could hear them all calling to each other. In the spring you could often find a pair of cranes with young. During my time in Florida, I also had the opportunity to work with Sandhill Cranes while I was a zoo keeper. We had one female crane that was my favorite and looked forward to seeing every day. She could always put a smile on your face when you were having a rough day. Her name is Sandy, very imprinted crane and loved her keepers. Often when you would come in the exhibit and talk to her she would start to dance. Sandy would jump up and down, spread her wings, throw a stick and end with a loud call. It was such a treat knowing that she was dancing for you.
After recently moving to Iowa, I wondered how often I would have the chance to see Sandhill Cranes. Iowa is on the edge of their summer breeding grounds, but they are making a comeback to some of the areas.
This summer I was able to witness a pair of Sandhill Cranes nesting. I was out at the Yellow River National Forest in Harpers Ferry, one day at the end of April looking for some spring migrants. I was meandering down a stream towards a bigger pond, where I spotted a Great blue heron. As I was trying to capture pictures of the heron, two sandhill cranes took flight from the pond. Above the pond the cranes were circling overhead and calling. I settled down into the tall shrubs and behind a tree for cover. After a few minutes, one of the cranes came in for a landing right in front of me. The crane then made it’s was over to two brown speckled eggs nestled in the nest. She checked out the eggs and sat down to continue incubating the eggs.
Sandhill Crane nest are normally constructed over water, using surrounding vegetation. A crane typically lays a single, two-egg clutch annually. After 30 days of incubation the eggs hatch out and are called colts.
Since I did not know for sure how long the eggs have been in the nest, I had no way of predicting which days to expect the eggs to hatch. I have a belief of trying not to disrupt wildlife for the sake of photography. I try my hardest to be discreet and by keeping a good distance away. I planned on checking on the nesting pair each week, hoping they would have a successful nesting season.
Each week was the same ….two eggs on the nest and an adult guarding the nest with the other adult close by. After a few times of passing through the shrubs from a distance away, they seemed to be more accepting of my presence.
By the middle of May I went out to check on the nesting pair. I reached my secret hiding spot behind the tree and grass. I noticed that the crane was still sitting on the nest. I knew it could be any day now. I started to watch some of the other birds around. I happened to look back at the crane and her back feathers started to rustle….then all of a sudden out popped the tiny head of the colt. It was such an amazing feeling seeing that little colt, especially the day before my birthday, I couldn’t ask for a better present.
I went out the next day to check on the crane family and to see if the other egg hatched. When I reached my spot, I did not see any cranes around. I waited a few minutes, and then all of a sudden I heard some purring sounds coming from a distance away. Next thing I saw were the two adults walking across the pond towards their nest with the colt swimming behind them. It was such a unique experience to witness. I checked back on the crane family a week later and there was still only one colt, which is very normal for cranes. After spending some time watching the crane family, I remember back to seeing a pair of Sandhill Cranes with a juvenile around the same area last year…could they be the same pair? Being able to watch the Crane family was a very exciting experience and journey! Hopefully they will make the journey back next year and have a successful nesting season. Enjoy!
Chicks will leave the nest within 8 hours of hatching and they can even swim.
If you are interested in learning more about the migration to the Platte River check out Rowe Sanctuary: http://rowe.audubon.org/