Ancient Birds

A small flock of Sandhill cranes appear to fly with little effort as they head to some corn stubble in a field just to the east where more cranes have gathered.

December 5, 2022 – My annual trip to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area in Indiana to experience the Sandhill cranes in large numbers, a late autumn migration spectacle, did not disappoint. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is a staging area for the southbound cranes. And while thousands will have moved on to the southern United States by the end of December, there will still be hundreds overwintering in the area.
The DNR’s estimated count of Sandhill cranes posted on the park’s website was around 31,000 at the end of November. While many cranes could be viewed and photographed at the Sandhill Crane observation area inside the park from the observation platform, cranes could also be found socializing and resting and feeding in large flocks in the agricultural fields and along large ditches in the surrounding countryside.

The loud bugle calls described by some as a “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” made by the cranes fill the air echoing a feeling of nostalgia for days long gone as small flocks cast shadows as they fly low over the large numbers of cranes resting in grassy waterways and the harvested fields. Based on the fossil record, the spring and fall migrations of the Sandhill crane have been occurring in one form or another for millions of years across the North American continent. Observing the large flocks of these great gray birds flying and vocalizing across an autumn sky is like looking through a window to another time in the distant past; it becomes easy to isolate that feeling, if only for a moment. Spending just a day with the great flocks of Sandhill cranes, it becomes easy to understand how and why the crane is part of the indigenous people’s culture to this day.

Long before the Europeans stepped foot on this continent, the Sandhill crane was part of the stories and legends of the indigenous. The Eastern Sandhill cranes are considered an important totem to the native people of the Great Lakes region. The crane represents leadership, independence, and good fortune. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is about 53 miles east of Kankakee as the crane flies and can be a wonderful day trip and learning experience for families. Don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera, pack a lunch and make a day of it, stay safe and enjoy. For more information about the cranes, visit the Indiana DNR’s website.

Jumping into the air with its five-foot wings spread wide, the crane seems to be trying to entice the other crane to join in a dance.

Sandhill Migration

Adult Sandhill cranes seem to bow to each other as they perform their elaborate dance display. The Sandhill cranes are most famous for their beautiful courtship dancing, which is more common, but they dance year-round while socializing, which is believed to be a way to bond with their partner.

November 11, 2021 – Chilly early November mornings in the Midwest bring sensational enhancements that satisfy the consciousness. There are the familiar smells of wood-burning stoves and mixed stands of trees in delightful shades of umber above their sturdy black trunks surrounded in silvery pockets of shifting ground fog that floats like ghostly spirits across the countryside. The senses are quickly lifted and seem to fall under a spell of nostalgic longing to the observer. A subtle change presents itself with color and complexity during this most thought-provoking and inspiring season of the year, the back-end period. Above in the slow-rolling gray skies, small flocks of low flying and noisy Canada geese are sharing airspace with much larger flocks of those great birds, the Sandhill cranes. As far as the eye can see, hundreds of Sandhill cranes, flying in all directions, have left their nightly roosts and are heading to their daytime feeding and socializing areas along the ditches and agricultural fields of Northern Indiana. The loud rattling calls of the Sandhill cranes fill the morning air, faint sounds of cranes off in the distance can be heard across the fields and past the woods over a mile away. Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville in Northern Indiana is a stopover during autumn for Sandhill cranes moving south for the winter. Each year the southbound Sandhill cranes begin arriving in northern Indiana in October. The numbers peak in late November through December. Thousands of cranes move out of the area and head further south towards the Gulf states by the end of December, but many cranes remain where they take advantage of a nearby power plant where they find open water year-round. For thousands of years, Sandhill cranes have followed the same routes south during the fall migration taking them where fair weather and food can sustain them through the cold winter months. With a fossil record dating back two and a half million years, Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living bird species in North America. There is not a painting so beautiful as the experience of watching a flock of Sandhill cranes illuminated by the morning sun gliding low across a backdrop of autumn color.

Three Sandhill cranes, two juveniles, and an adult stand close together while cautiously watching an intruder pass by.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

Sandhill Crane Southerly Migration

Sandhill cranes

Two immature Sandhill cranes, probably siblings, practicing their dancing while adult birds look on.

October 31, 2018 – It’s autumn in Northwestern Indiana and the dynamic shades of orange and yellow have proven especially inspiring this year. But those changes to a landscape that is filled with that nostalgic fall delight also means that it is the season for the Sandhill crane southerly migration. A major stopover or staging area for the Eastern population of cranes is at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area and it is happening now. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Sandhill crane count, for 2018-19 at the Jasper-Pulaski FWA, the numbers have increased from the October 16th count of 2,067 to 4,591 for the Oct 23rd count. The Sandhill cranes will continue to arrive daily in large and small flocks from points north and will peak with many thousands resting and feeding in the area by mid-November. According to Audubon’s online ornithological summary the highest count for Sandhill cranes a Jasper-Pulaski FWA happened on November 26, 2002 with a count of 34,629. By the end of December the cranes will have moved south, mostly into Florida. Information for the best times and locations for viewing along with updated counts can be found at the Sandhill Cranes Fall Migration page of the Indiana DNR

Sandhill Cranes Migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

August 20, 2018 – Only a month from now the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox will signal the official change from those lazy days of summer to the cool nights and colorful days of inspiration, reflection and the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes. There are small numbers of Sandhill cranes in areas of Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana that have been here through the summer and a few pair of the great birds that have successfully nested. Soon though, there will be a big push from points north as much cooler temperatures become apparent in Canada and the Upper Midwest. The spectacular migration will fill the eyes and ears of the fortunate with the amazing sights and sounds of hundreds of southbound Sandhill cranes heading for their staging areas of the Midwest. The cranes will amass in flocks of thousands where they will spend their days feeding, resting and dancing over the next few months. A well known and wonderful place to view the concentrations of Sandhill cranes is a little over fifty miles east of Kankakee at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana. By late December, as winter tightens its’ grip, most of the Sandhill cranes will have continued south where food can easily be found in the unfrozen fields and marshes of a much more tolerant climate of the southern United States.

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane

Female #14-15

December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Fly Over

The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.

Whooping Cranes

Male 63-15, Female 71-16 and a young parent-reared #24-17

Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area

Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble

Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble

November 20, 2017 – The last count posted for Sandhill crane numbers at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area was November 14 showing 7,706. On Monday, numbers most certainly have grown with hundreds of new arrivals daily feeding and resting in the surrounding agricultural fields. Many hundreds can be seen at the Goose Pasture Viewing Area in the park. We are now in the peak viewing season for these noisy travelers with their unmistakable chorus of rattling and croaking sounds that fill the chilled November skies. I also spotted a juvenile and an adult Golden eagle patrolling the very windy skies Monday near the Goose Pasture. One photograph shows two adult Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble and the other photo shows a young Golden eagle with the bright white tail feathers and the distinct white parts under the wings, the adult Golden eagles being mostly dark.

Young Golden eagle

Juvenile Golden eagle

Concentrations of Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

March 2, 2017 – Concentrations of Sandhill Cranes dot the gentle sloping meadows along the waterways of the fallow winter fields in Northern Indiana. Many hundreds of these cranes can also be seen around wet spots of ponding water socializing and foraging for food in Jasper and Pulaski counties. The spring migration has began and the rattling and honking sounds of these travelers echoes today as it must have for thousands of years. The sudden increase in the volume of a dramatic chatter in the cranes vocalization draws the eye towards the jumping and bowing birds as their elegant dance is reaffirming life partners or a potential mate for the new generations of mature single birds. Throughout time the crane has had a place in myth and story telling, Native Americans tell stories emphasizing the slyness of the crane, others see the cranes as good luck or even a sign of fertility and death as part of the lore. To watch these cranes, with their beaks pointed straight up to the sky or heads and necks bent back or low to the ground the sudden twisting and twirling bodies and stamping feet with feathers spread out in their dance performance, one truly sees the borrowed from nature positions used in ballet or the stances used in martial arts or Yoga. Soon these birds will continue their trips to points north where another brooding season begins, nesting amongst the cattails and sedges with a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs. In late summer early fall the migration once again will bring the cranes back to Jasper and Pulaski counties where they will rest and feed with flocks that can grow to as much as 25,000. By early December they will have all headed farther south to a less hostile environment for the winter where the birds will enjoy food and rest until the days start to grow longer and the spring dance of the Sandhill Crane calls once more as the cycle continues.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes