“The cranes are moving” was the word on IBET, Illinois’s birding listserv on Monday morning. The next wave of a very unseasonably cold, Arctic air mass was moving into northeastern Illinois and like many of the more shallow marsh and open bodies of water here, was apparently freezing most such areas that Sandhill Cranes need for nightly roosting areas, farther north. As I usually do when this cry goes out each fall, I stepped outside and walked to the end of my suburban front yard and looked (& listened) northward. It was scarcely five minutes before I heard the first flocks on Monday. They were easy to see and hear as the low cloud ceiling had most birds flying just a few hundred feet off the ground. (A couple of times I even heard them calling from our downstairs basement!) Without a coat on, the cold air bit at much of my body… and apparently was a little too cold for some of the Sandhills moving southeast around Lake Michigan, as 2-10 or so out of each flock of 25-100 birds had their long legs, normally stretching out far beyond their bodies in flight, tucked up nice and warm under their bellies, making them look more like geese, if not for their distinctive and attractive, trumpet-like harmonizing, as they quickly moved over in the brisk tailwind which aided their movements. My yard count for the several times I ventured out into the yard on Monday was about 485 Sandhills (only about 85 yesterday, some still with folded legs). Reasons for this tucking-in of the legs, as you might expect, are due to especially cold temps, as such behavior is rarely if ever noted during times when movements are done in warmer periods. Check out this short journal article for a brief description (https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/jfo/v056n04/p0409-p0410.pdf ). It was neat to see so many of the cranes exhibiting this interesting behavior.
Having grown up and spent most of my life in central Illinois, it was not often that you could hear or see a migrating flock of Sandhill Cranes winging their way south to and from their most favored congregation point east of the Mississippi River, the Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana. This, even though the cranes at Jasper don’t pass that far east of my boyhood home of Danville on their way there… it’s just a straight shot to Jasper once they clear the south end of Lake Michigan. One of my first and most-favored birding areas outside of Illinois when I first started birding was the Jasper-Pulaski Refuge and the nearby Willow Slough State Fish & Wildlife Area, as our Audubon Society visited these areas each year to see the large numbers of Sandhill Cranes that stop there every fall. For those that have never been there, the large field where the cranes gather in the evening at a conveniently positioned observation platform, can be a highly rewarding event of the birding year as most of the 20-30 thousand cranes that often build-up there can be seen (& heard!) all over the large field at one time… often along with a few Whooping Cranes! (see the YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lmFxUgt1-c ). Several years ago, a Common Crane even showed up for several days, which I made the relatively short drive over from my home county of Vermilion to see.
Interestingly, with global climate change, the cranes are staying later into the late fall and even early winter, not only at these northwestern Indiana staging areas but also in northern Illinois, and even breeding areas farther north, though it looks like with the passing of thousands of cranes over northeastern Illinois the past two days, most of the breeding areas and secondary staging areas in Chicagoland and to our north have emptied out. Though it used to be unheard of to record a Sandhill Crane anywhere in Illinois in winter just 15-20 years ago or so, now small flocks of from 5 to 125 birds or more are being tallied fairly regularly on some northeastern Illinois Christmas Bird Counts.
Another interesting and until recently totally unknown phenomena involving Sandhill Crane movements through the Chicagoland area was divulged a few years ago through research being conducted by Jeff Fox (in cooperation with IDNR natural heritage biologist Brad Semel) for research he was conducting on the cranes for his graduate studies. A few radio transmitters were attached to young-of-the-year Sandhill Cranes that had hatched from nests in McHenry and Lake Counties, and while monitoring these cranes’ movements to see when, where and how they would move, both within northeastern Illinois and once they leave, the researchers were pretty astonished to learn that some of the cranes were flying back and forth from the Jasper-Pulaski Preserve to the Lake-McHenry County area, sometimes several times, each fall/winter! Pretty amazingly, to say the least, as most consider that the cranes head for Florida once they leave Jasper-Pulaski in the fall. However, that preserve is starting to build up its own over-wintering flock of Sandhills (along with a few Whoopers!).
Several bird species make this southeast movement around the southerly end of Lake Michigan, in both spring and fall migration. The list includes such disparate species as the cranes, Northern Saw-whet Owls, and Black-throated Blue Warblers, making the Chicagoland area one of the best places in the state to find these species. The Chicagoland area is also one of the best places in the state to observe migrating Tundra Swans moving from their Upper Mississippi River staging areas to their mid-Atlantic wintering locations, though these strong flyers aren’t adverse to cutting straight out and high above the open waters of Lake Michigan. But some of this can be discussed in a later blog post. Hopefully, one of these years I’ll take a trip to the sandhills of Nebraska to witness the even larger congregations of cranes along the Platte River there. So many places to see, so little time.
Buy the way, for those that like to read, you should try to find a small, little book about Sandhill Cranes by Paul Johnsgard, “Those of the Gray Wind:The Sandhill Cranes”. And just mentioning the sandhills of Nebraska made me think of two other good books that I have read by John Janovy, Jr., “Keith County Journal” and “Back in Keith County”. Though not about cranes, Janovy is a biologist so there is a lot of neat stuff, especially about birds and other wildlife as well. Good birding!