Sandhill crane passage is a fall classic
(published 10-14-04)

The first sandhill crane I ever saw was through a rental car window just outside of Grand Island, Neb. The huge bird was flying low, silhouetted in a soft evening sky. It was one of those “wow” moments in birding that you never forget.

I was in central Nebraska to witness one of the birding world’s great spectacles—the annual gathering of up to 500,000 sandhill cranes along the Platte River, the key stopover along their northerly spring migration. “Sandies” were everywhere, roosting on the Platte’s sandbars at dusk and foraging in surrounding corn fields by day. There was even a rare whooping crane mixed in among them, an exciting bonus for the hundreds of visiting birders like me.

That was 1998, when I barely knew a kinglet from a kingfisher. Now I fully appreciate that going to Nebraska in March to see my first sandhill crane was like somebody going to the Super Bowl to see his first football game. And frankly, I had no idea back then how easy it is to see sandhill cranes right here at home. October and November, in particular, offer prime viewing opportunities as the birds migrate south. You may not see a crane on the ground, but with a little patience you’re almost certain to see one of their noisy flocks passing over—maybe from your own backyard. 

Cranes are indeed conspicuous in the late autumn sky. They have extra-long windpipes that serve to amplify their distinctive bugle call. Even high-flying flocks are easily heard.

One of my favorite nature writers, Scott Weidensaul, described the sandhill crane’s call as “pure magic, guaranteed to raise gooseflesh on someone hearing it for the first time.” Such reverent words are commonly associated with cranes, which are among the world’s oldest living bird species. They have an almost mythical quality that people find inspiring.

Of course, sandhill cranes are distinguished by their size as well. With wingspans up to 7 feet they are slightly larger than great blue herons. Unlike herons, however, cranes fly with their long necks stretched straight out. They usually travel in loose V formations, like geese, but on Indian summer days you may see them soaring in a spiral pattern. In those cases they’re riding updrafts of warm air, called thermals, just like hawks and turkey vultures do. 

Sandies passing over DuPage and Kane counties this fall likely spent their summers on breeding grounds in Minnesota, Wisconsin or southern Canada. Most of them will now assemble at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana before journeying on to Florida and southern Georgia for the winter. 

To see cranes in great numbers, Jasper-Pulaski is the place to be from mid-October through November. It’s the Midwest version of the Platte River spectacle, and it’s a whole lot closer than Nebraska. For more information, call (219) 843-4841.

Copyright 2004 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.