Season of the Sandhills

Sandhill Cranes flying over water.

“High horns, low horns, silence and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shake the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last, a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of approaching birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”  –  A Sand County Almanac

Lake view.

Those dramatic words from Aldo Leopold paint a vivid picture of Sandhill Cranes. Even if you see just a single pair of Sandhills in low flight over a lake it’s a most memorable experience as I had a few weeks ago from the shoreline of Algoe Lake in the Ortonville State Recreation Area, where I photographed the lead image of that pair of low-flying Sandhills.

Sandhill Cranes are one of the most recognizable bird species of Oakland County. With their long necks, bright red crowns, gray feather and distinctive bugling calls these magnificent birds are unforgettable. Listen and look for them if you hike at Independence Oaks; one of the most popular Oakland County parks for people, and Cranes. Another hot spot for listening and often seeing them is near the lake at Highland Oaks County Park and Kensington Metropark. As is often the case, especially when in flight, you hear them before you see them since their vocalization can be heard from a very long way off. A pair of Sandhills that I am slowly getting acquainted with is setting up nesting near a beaver lodge along the west shoreline of Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park. Of interest, it’s the same lodge a goose sometimes perches on.

Sandhill Crane in lake.

One need not wander very far to encounter Sandhills in the early days of April. These highly adaptable birds often appear, and sometimes nest, very close to human activity. On St Patrick’s Day, I watched two Sandhills strut across the snow-covered meadow next to the parking lot of Bullfrogs Bar and Grill on busy M-15 in Brandon Township. For Sandhills, that habitat was just fine and I suspect they will be nesting near the adjacent cattails on the shoreline of Lake Louise. I wonder if it’s the same pair that was there much of last summer. Last spring, I was pleased to have Sandhills strutting along the edge of my driveway. They were most likely attracted to the tall grasses of my rural, rather weedy front yard that harbors both seeds and insects.

Bird books proclaim that Sandhill Cranes winter in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, but when a bird disagrees with a bird book, always believe the bird. Some Sandhills never migrate from Oakland County. I kept an eye on a pair of Sandhills all winter in a still partially snow-covered wet meadow about half-mile from my house along a heavily traveled dirt road. Food is not a problem for these omnivorous and highly adaptable birds. Their menu is long and if they can pull it from the ground, glean it from the surface of the water or hunt it down in foot pursuit they will eat it. Although grains and seeds are near the top of their favorite foods list, they will also capture and eat ground nestlings, small mammals, large insects, snails, snakes and hunt for berries in spring. The bottom line is clear: If it’s edible, it’s a potential entrée. With the dawn of spring now behind us, the choices on their menus have greatly increased.

Sandhills flying in the sky.

Unlike tree-nesting Great Blue Herons, a somewhat similar-looking equally-large bird they are sometimes confused with, Sandhills are always ground nesters. There are also clear visual clues that help tell them apart for novice birders. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes, “Sandhill Cranes are more uniformly gray, and adult Sandhills have vivid red crown that Great Blue Herons don’t have. In flight, a Sandhill Crane keeps its neck outstretched, not tucked in like a Great Blue Heron”

If you wander around the shoreline of Wildwing Lake at Kensington Metropark, it’s easy to spot dozens of Great Blue Herons on a small island in that lake. Some are perched on branches while others are on a cluster of lofty tree nests constructed from small sticks. Sandhills, however, are exclusively ground nesters, and their nests are usually well hidden near a shoreline in areas with thick vegetation. Wetland sites offer some protection from egg predators, which include coyotes, raccoons, foxes and skunks. Their nests are large structures comprised of weeds, grasses, and marsh plants and are often well hidden in or near shoreline vegetation. Larger materials form the sturdy foundation and smaller stems and even small twigs line what biologists call the egg cup, a small depression at the top center that cradles the eggs. Both the male and female adult cranes take turns incubating their eggs.

Unfortunately, some of the Sandhills near the Kensington Metropark Nature Center have become acclimated to people offering them treats, which is not permitted, to the point that they will approach anyone in hopes of getting a handout. That does not bode well for natural bird behavior and their beaks are powerful. However, the fearless human-acclimated Sandhills make close-up photos very easy, and many of the close-ups in today’s blog were captured at Kensington.

Nesting season has arrived. Sandhills lay anywhere from one to three eggs at a time and take turns incubating them until they hatch. Hatching occurs about 30 days later unless a predator such as a raccoon, fox or coyote discovers the nest first. Last April, I had the pleasure of watching a pair of Sandhills stroll along the shoulder of Scripts Road in Orion Township with their colt (juvenile sandhill) between them. I drove a few yards past them, parked, lowered my window and captured their nonchalant passing. It should go without saying, but never approach a nesting Sandhill. They will vigorously defend their nests and young from both ground and aerial predators as well as intruding humans assuring that the “Season of the Sandhills” will continue on the wilder side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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