One of the most remarkable migrations on our planet is the journey of the sandhill cranes. Some fly all the way from Siberia to Texas. And they’re remarkable for all sorts of other reasons. This is one of the stories I most enjoyed writing, in Alaska Airlines’ Horizon magazine. The story is no longer online but full text is below:
When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past.
– Aldo Leopold writing about cranes in “A Sand County Almanac”
By Michael Shapiro
We hear them before we see them: the rolling-R trilling sounds from a mile away. Then they fly into view, long necks straight out, broad gray wings stretching almost as wide as the horizon, crimson-crowned heads like points of fire in the gathering dusk. After a day out feeding, the Sandhill cranes are returning to roost in a flooded field near Lodi in California’s Central Valley, about 35 miles south of Sacramento, exuberantly calling to their mates and to their young.
Unlike geese, cranes don’t typically fly in big flocks, they stick to family groups and descend three or five at a time from the darkening sky. With a wingspan of more than 6 feet, the greater Sandhill crane is one of the world’s largest flying birds.
During Lodi’s annual crane festival in early November, I join a group of about 30 people on a birdwatching tour to observe these elegant behemoths coast toward the shallow water, meeting their reflections as they land.
Accompanied by squawking migratory geese, who seem like bodyguards or groupies, the cranes seek wetland areas where they can spend the night in 4 to 6 inches of water. They can’t roost in trees or in the ever-spreading vineyards of the Central Valley – their wingspan is too wide. So cranes seek the protection of water, where the slosh of an approaching coyote or other predator will create an aquatic alarm, giving the birds time to flee.
Like many people in California and the West, I’d heard about cranes but hadn’t seen them up close. After I learned about the Lodi Crane Festival, I signed up for a couple of tours, led by knowledgable naturalists and interpretive guides, to discover more about these majestic birds.
And there are many other events celebrating cranes, such as the Othello Sand Hill Crane Festival in central Washington state, to be held March 28-30, 2014 (see related story).
When Aldo Leopold wrote about Sandhill and whooping cranes in his 1937 classic “A Sand County Almanac,” these magnificent birds were on the decline; some populations appeared destined for extinction.
Cranes suffered from habitat loss, powerline electrocution, poisoning and human predation – hunters called the greater Sandhill cranes, which stand 4 to 5 feet tall and weigh 10-14 pounds, “flying rib-eye.” Only five breeding pairs of Sandhill cranes remained in California.
Three quarters of a century later, with an assist from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, crane populations have rebounded dramatically, though habitat loss and hunting continue to imperil these graceful birds. Hunting is still legal in 13 states, including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Alaska.
“The hunting is a real problem for the smaller populations of greater sandhill cranes. They can be heavily hunted and this does real damage,” says Gary Ivey, a Bend, Oregon-based research associate for the International Crane Foundation. “It’s a little sketchy because cranes don’t raise a lot of young. It takes a long time for populations to grow.”
At least 40,000 Sandhill cranes winter in California, Ivey says. The majority of these birds are lesser cranes (about 30,000), about 9,000 are greaters and approximately 1,000 are the intermediate Canadian subspecies.”
The lesser cranes, at 3 to 4 feet, are almost as tall as the greaters but weigh about half as much (6 to 8 pounds). Though their numbers are rising, the greater Sandhill crane is still listed as threatened in California. The Mississippi Sandhill is a federally listed endangered species, and the Florida and Washington crane is on those states’ Threatened list. And cranes in Cuba are listed as endangered as well.
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Sandhill cranes spend the winter throughout their ancestral ranges in the western half of the U.S., from Washington to Texas. In March and April, up to 750,000 cranes spend a few weeks feeding in Nebraska before returning to their summer habitats in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
Some 300,000 or more cranes can be seen at the Audubon Society’s Rowe Sanctuary, just a couple of miles from Highway 80 in south-central Nebraska. Some cranes traverse Oregon and Washington en route to Alaska. Others cranes breed in Montana, Idaho and British Columbia.
Known for their ecstatic mating dances, lifelong pair bonding, and epic migrations, cranes have long been revered by humans. In their dances the cranes jump high, kick, call to one another and tilt their necks skyward in one of nature’s most balletic spectacles. During migrations cranes typically soar about a mile high, but when necessary to fly over mountains, they can travel 15,000 to 20,000 feet above the earth.
In an average migratory day, cranes fly 200 miles but daily distances of 500 miles have been recorded. The longest migrations, from Siberia to Texas or northern Mexico, can span 5,000 miles, and take up to a month, Ivey said. Perhaps because cranes are so large, groups of them aren’t called “flocks” — they’re “herds.” And the young are called “colts.”
Aesop, the Greek storyteller who lived in the 6th century BCE, celebrated cranes’ ability “to rise above the clouds into endless space, and survey the wonders of the heavens, as well as of the Earth beneath, with its seas, lakes and rivers, as far as the eyes can reach.”
In his elegiac book The Birds of Heaven, Peter Matthiessen notes that throughout cranes’ ranges, from Asia to Europe to North America, the birds represent “longevity and good fortune, harmony and fidelity.” And some cultures believe cranes, with their heavenly flights, transport the souls of the dead.
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Near the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve near Lodi, California Fish & Wildlife guide Mamie Starr tells tour-goers that farmers, a group that used to try to cull cranes because they eat grain, are now working with preservation groups. “We have lots of cooperation from farmers,” she says, noting that winters are typically fallow times for grain growers so some are willing to flood their fields to support cranes.
Cranes have been coming here for thousands of years, says Kathy Kellogg, a volunteer co-leading the tour and former interpretive aid with California Fish & Game. But the number of acres of wetlands in California has shrunk from 440,000 to 40,000, as walnut orchards and grape vines have proliferated, and housing tracts consume ever more land. Similar issues confront cranes throughout the west.
“This is one of the few places that Sandhill cranes can come,” Kellogg says. “If we don’t cooperate with them, they will have nowhere else to go. They’d be homeless.”
As darkness envelops the reserve, the cranes quiet down, standing erect, as stars appear in the blackening sky. Less than a mile away cars zip by on Highway 5, their drivers unaware of the wild spectacle nearby.
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The next morning I rise well before dawn. Our 12-person tour, held in conjunction with the Lodi festival, meets at Hutchins Street Square in Lodi. An enthusiastic bird watcher gets out of his car, spreads his arms wide and shouts: “It’s crane season!”
During the 10-minute ride to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, Paul Tebbel, a volunteer for the preservation group Save Our Sandhill Cranes, says, “Cranes are very tall and conspicuous – if you can’t find the crane, give up bird watching and take up bowling.” He says he’s drawn to cranes because “they are very animated – there is dancing and aggression, … always something going on.”
David Moore, a California Fish & Wildlife interpreter and the other guide on the dawn tour, says that juvenile cranes grow very quickly, gaining up to 10 percent of their body weight in a day.
“They grow at a phenomenal rate. Within 10 months of development they grow almost to full size,” Moore said. “They need to fly (migrate) that first fall.”
The greater cranes we see are from northeast California; their migration is only about 200 to 300 miles. In the 19th century, miners and prospectors, who called cranes “foothill turkeys,” almost wiped them out.
We shiver at a roadside viewpoint by a marshy area as the sky begins to lighten. “There is no colder place than a wetland at dawn,” Tebbel says.
At this early hour, when there’s little background noise, we can hear distinct crane calls, the males louder than the females. The trumpeting of unison calls, when mated pairs sing out together, rolls across the plane. An adult crane’s trachea is coiled and would reach 4 feet long if stretched out, giving the birds the ability to make a deeply resonant vibrating sound that can be heard over great distances.
The crimson patch atop their heads, Tebbel says, is not composed of feathers but is crimson skin. They use this patch to communicate happiness, excitement or anger. “They put their heads down, take aim, and send a message. It’s as if he’s saying ‘All right hon, let’s get em.’ ”
Mist rises from the marsh as the sun emerges and the cranes wake up. “It’s loudest just before sunrise,” Tebbel says. Ducks and geese take off before the cranes, who “like to sleep in.”
A few cranes start hopping around, the juveniles especially energetic, almost like junior high school kids practicing their steps before their first dance. Cranes dance for all sorts of reasons, especially as a prelude to mating in late spring or early summer. They hop, bend, strut and pirouette, and flush their scarlet head patches.
“Sandhill cranes love to dance with their mates or with others,” Tebbel says. “They don’t need much of an excuse. They just love dancing.”
Moore adds: “Some say they dance out of sheer joy.”
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When one member of a crane family is ready for liftoff, she stretches her neck in the direction she wants to fly. Soon the other members of the family lean so far in the same direction that they’re almost parallel to the ground. Then, with a signal we can’t detect, they take off.
This can be done by males or females – hard to tell the difference from a distance — juveniles follow their lead. Male or female can be the first to start signaling.
A half hour after sunrise, it’s mostly silent. “When we first came (to Woodbridge Road at dawn), it gave me goosebumps to hear them,” said Lynn Schweissinger, a guest on tour. “Now it’s like someone turned it off.”
A coyote appears near the cranes, but they don’t seem too disturbed, knowing they can fight it off with their beaks and claws. “The real predators are right here,” Tebbel says, pointing to a PG&E powerline. The utility has hung bird diverters (5-inch disks that sway in wind and glow in the dark) to help cranes see the line. This has reduced crane injuries, but some are injured or killed by colliding with the lines, which they have trouble seeing, Starr said.
Starr said electrocution not the main issue here – it can happen but primarily it’s because cranes fly at high speed into the lines which can injure or kill them.
Later that morning we visit nearby Staten Island, a 9,200-acre reserve managed by The Nature Conservancy to provide habitat for migratory birds. Thousands of geese fly in, joining hundreds of cranes. Several Sandhill cranes fly right over our heads, giving us a sense of these birds’ grand size.
The tour is over but no one wants to leave. “You guys are now officially craniacs,” Tebbel says.
That afternoon at the crane festival we join hundreds of other craniacs to peruse the paintings and photos for sale, learn how to make origami cranes and hear talks about these birds, which have endured for 10 million years.
A festival highlight is a slideshow by California wildlife photographer Lon Yarbrough. He calls cranes “a gift of nature” and says they “add a chorus to the valley.” To observe and appreciate cranes, Yarbrough says, “all you have to do is show up.”
Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place and writes for National Geographic Traveler, Islands and the Washington Post.
SIDEBAR: SANDHILL CRANE VIEWING LOCATIONS
The city of Homer is a good place to see lesser Sandhill cranes from May through August, where about 150 cranes spend the summer. Cranes have become relatively tame around Homer and are easy to approach and photograph. www.cranewatch.org.
The Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival is held in early May: www.homeralaska.org/content/kachemak-bay-shorebird-festival-2013
The Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge in Anchorage provides excellent opportunities to view migrating lesser Sandhill cranes in April through September. This state-owned refuge also supports a few nesting pairs of lessers. www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewinglocations.anchcoastalrefuge
Creamer’s Field near Fairbanks is an important staging area, where the sandhills stop along their migration to rest and feed to replenish energy and gain enough energy reserves for the next leg of the migration, for cranes migrating to and from the Platte River in Nebraska. The best time to visit is April and August. Tanana Valley Crane Festival, late August, www.creamersfield.org/Crane_Fest_2013.html
The Lodi Sandhill Crane Association hosts the Lodi Sandhill Crane Festival annually in early November and offers tours. www.cranefestival.com.
Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge (6 miles east-southeast of Ord Bend). Moderate numbers of greater Sandhill cranes (up to 2,000) roost on the Llano Seco Unit of Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge along 7-Mile Road,, from November through March. The Altacal Chapter of the Audubon Society hosts an annual Snow Goose Festival in late January which also celebrates Sandhill cranes, www.snowgoosefestival.org.
The City of Galt hosts the Galt Winter Bird Festival, annually and provides tours to see cranes in early February. www.ci.galt.ca.us/index.aspx?page=495
Merced National Wildlife Refuge (10 miles SW of Merced). Large numbers of lesser Sandhill cranes (up to 15,000) use this refuge, primarily from October through February. www.fws.gov/refuge/merced/public_events.html.
For more on crane tours in California, see: www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/3/cranetour
Sauvie Island Wildlife Management Area (15 miles NW of Portland). About 4,000 Sandhill cranes stage in this region during spring and fall migration. Best times to view cranes here are October and mid-March through mid-April. There is an observation platform where cranes can often be seen along Reeder Road.
Ranchlands of the Silvies Floodplain near Burns host up to 10,000 lesser Sandhill cranes during spring migration (mid-March through mid-April) and also supports a large population (about 80 pairs) of nesting greater Sandhill cranes. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce annually hosts the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival in early April and provide tours: www.migratorybirdfestival.com
Scharff site doesn’t list 2014 date yet. If they don’t update soon maybe we could try to reach local chamber of commerce.
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 32 miles SSE of Burns, hosts about 200 pairs of breeding greater Sandhill cranes. Best times to observe cranes are May and September, while cranes are abundant there from April through mid-October. For tour info, see: www.malheurfriends.org/events.html
Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello. Up to 20,000 of the lesser Sandhill cranes in the Pacific Flyway stage near Othello from mid-March to mid-April. The annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival (March 28-30, 2014) offers tours: www.othellosandhillcranefestival.org
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near Ridgefield, Washington. About 4,000 Sandhill cranes stage in this region during spring and fall migration. Best times to view cranes here are October and mid-March through mid-April. The Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge hosts an annual Birdfest and has crane tours: ridgefieldfriends.org/birdfest
Source: Gary Ivey, International Crane Foundation