All about Sandhill Cranes

Almost exactly thirty years ago, one of my Denver homeys – a long-time hunting and fishing buddy – said something like “Hey, let’s forget about hunting and fishing for a few days and take a run up into Nebraska. You’ll see giant beautiful birds dancing and singing and clumsy and graceful all at once. And we can get some pictures and maybe play a little poker in the camper over something on ice.”

This was the same guy who once got me to take a six-mile forced armed march through the Piceance Basin of northwestern Colorado by urgently saying, as he lowered his fancy binoculars, “Omigod! Two giant bucks just dropped into that draw across the valley.  We got just enough time to get into there and back before dark, if we hustle.” Of course, we found neither bucks nor tracks. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he finally allowed over a cold malt beverage that evening, “but it was a good hike.”

Given his history, while weighing the good times we’d had, I agreed to hit Nebraska for a long weekend. Worse comes to worse, I figured, we’d play a little blackjack, savor a little nicely-aged scotch and he’d buy most of the groceries. The three-hour drive took us northeast from Denver into a very dark night along the Platte River.

I can still feel myself standing there that next morning, mouth agape, looking over a noisy, boisterous sea of greater sandhill cranes. Over the better part of three days, we were within a hundred yards of tens of thousands of them. They were flying, landing, bouncing, calling, bobbing, dancing and taking off. They were breathtakingly graceful and comically clumsy. They were before us and behind us and around us. A time or two, as they fell awkwardly from the sky, I’d have sworn they were going to land on my head. Raucously, they filled those early spring fields along the river.

What got me thinking about all that, of course, is the buzz about last weekend’s Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. It was all it promised to be. And there are still hundreds of these birds to be seen.

The last time I found cranes out in our Columbia Basin, it happened as dusk settled. We pulled well onto the shoulder, grabbed optics and camera and sat mesmerized. That loud, rattling “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o” echoed off the clouds and the Rattlesnake Hills as bird after bird found its way to the earth. Pairs and small groups bobbed, bowed, leaped, danced and trotted around with half-open wings. By full darkness, a hundred cranes were celebrating the open field within fifty yards of us.

As Big Bird Information Officer for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I am required to provide the following.  Our birds are lesser sandhill cranes.  The greater cranes (in Nebraska and thereabouts) are slightly taller and a bit longer in the bill, leg and wingspan than our birds.  Sandhill crane’s scientific name is Grus canadensis.  Our lessers will weigh in at seven pounds or so and stand just under three and a half feet tall, with wingspans just over six feet.  Add three or four pounds body weight and five or six inches to each measurement for the greater sandhill cranes.  The birds are mostly gray—often with red staining from preening in ferrous (iron-rich) mud—with a bright red crown and white cheeks.  Cranes fly with their necks outstretched, and once you hear that haunting “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o,” you won’t forget it.

Our lessers are on their way to make babies in the far North Country, although some will remain in the lower 48 (including nesting pairs at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, south of Glenwood at the base of Mount Adams). The larger birds breed mostly in Central Canada and the northern tier of states.

Once the bonded pair settle into breeding country, they will build a bulky nest of dead sticks, moss, grass, reeds and whatever else they fancy and lay two four-inch buff/olive eggs, marked with olive and brown.  After a month of incubation, the young cranes will hatch and be following their parents within a day.  Like their parents, they will eat pretty much what is available, including aquatic insects and invertebrates, worms, small mammals, young birds and eggs, bulbs, berries, lichens, water plants and grains.

In fall, our lesser cranes will head to Mexico.  Next spring, we’ll again celebrate their trip north.

It is easy to learn more about these amazing creatures. Steve Taylor and many others have posted crane photos on the PBase site – some of them are breathtaking. Go to www.pbase.com and put “sandhill cranes” into the search window. Find a good nature guide or a copy of “Washington Wildlife Viewing Guide” for places to find sandhill cranes. Check out Cornell University’s All About Birds site at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/id.

It’s not too late. Call 866-726-3445 for information. Go to the Basin. Find sandhill cranes. Have a noisy, dancing, wing-waving time.

Happy spring.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized