Whooping Cranes

A beautiful rare Whooping crane with leg bands visible flying to another field to feed.

January 28, 2021 – Nearing the end of January on a cold and cloudy morning a ghostly white figure stood out among a large number of wintering Sandhill cranes. The cranes were socializing and feeding in some corn stubble a few miles south of the Kankakee river. Large and small flocks of Sandhill cranes were flying across the sky in all directions and many hundreds were crowded together in the surrounding fields. At times a Sandhill crane would seem to challenge the larger white crane that appeared to be minding its’ own business only to be pushed back by the larger bird and disappear into the crowd of gray. Soon another white figure began to come in view as it slowly emerged from the deep drainage ditch that cut through the agricultural fields. A large beautiful white crane was feeding with the Sandhill cranes that were foraging along the weedy banks and in the shallow icy waters of the ditch. I always have somewhat of a mixed feeling of joy and sadness to see those glorious but rare and endangered Whooping cranes. Understanding their struggles and knowing how few there really are can certainly occupy the emotional part of your brain after the experience. Larger than the Sandhill crane, the Whooping crane is the tallest bird in North American and also one of the rarest. Currently the International Crane Foundation puts the numbers of Whooping cranes in the world at 826, the Eastern migratory population nest in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, and are the Whooping cranes that we see here in the Midwest and are estimated at 80 birds as of January 2021. Out of that estimated number in the Eastern population, 17 were wild-hatched, and the rest are captive-reared. There are 504 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory population that migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Louisiana has a non-migratory population of 69 and Florida has 9. There are 159 Whooping cranes in captivity

The bright-white Whooping crane stands out among the gray Sandhill cranes crowded together in the corn stubble.

Sandhill Cranes

Walking together at the edge of a grassy field some adult and juvenile Sandhill cranes move to join a larger flock at the edge of a wooded area.

November 12, 2020 – It’s that time of year when those amazing bugling and rattling sounds from thousands of Sandhill cranes echo across the countryside of Northern Indiana at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just north of Medaryville, a little over an hour east of Kankakee. Jasper-Pulaski FWA is a great place to witness the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes where they can easily and safely be viewed from the parking lot at the Goose Pasture viewing area or from the nearby viewing platform. As more cranes arrive and numbers continue to grow, so do visitors who want to experience that autumnal spectacle of nature that can quite easily overwhelm the senses with the sights and sounds that have occurred each fall across the great Midwestern prairies for thousands of years. Mid-November is considered the peak time for highest numbers of cranes, with a record number topping 30,000. By mid-December, many will have moved further south, but it’s no secret that there is a healthy winter population of cranes that remain in the general area. Even during the harshest of winters, cranes can be found in the bean and corn stubble foraging. Currently during the fall after leaving the roosting areas for the day, the cranes can be found feeding, socializing, and resting in the harvested agricultural fields and on the grassy areas along the big drainage ditches. Sunrise and sunset are great times to experience large flocks leaving the roosting marshes in the morning and gathering at the Goose Pasture, or again after a day of feeding in the agricultural fields, returning about an hour before sunset in large numbers. There is nothing more surreal than viewing Sandhill cranes in large numbers as far as the eye can see, stretching out across a rolling landscape and looking more like herds of ice-age animals than flocks of birds. It is truly an amazing sight.

Lying down in the soft grass on a sunny morning some Sandhill cranes look to be enjoying the mild November weather.

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.

Wintering Cranes

Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes flying with legs and feet pulled up under their bodies, temperatures at the time were in the single digits.

January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.

A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.

A single adult Whooping crane surrounded by hundreds of Sandhill cranes feeding in the corn stubble of an agricultural field.

A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).

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 https://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm.

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.

Sandhill cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

March 5, 2018 – Sandhill cranes have been seen in the area for the past month as they have been working their way north. Flocks small and large can be seen in the wet areas and agricultural fields across Northern Illinois and Indiana with larger concentration south of the Kankakee river valley near Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. It is also a good time to spot Golden eagles as they seem to follow the crane migration in both spring and fall. One was recently seen gliding low over some pine trees near the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands prairies.

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

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