The Platte River is a critical stopover for Sandhill Cranes during spring migration. Roughly 80% of the world population of Sandhills – about 500,000 – use this area between mid February and mid March. The stretch of river that remains useful for this species, and millions of other waterfowl, is shrinking as water is diverted for agriculture and development. Climate change to more extreme weather patterns of drought and floods give invasive woody plants the opportunity to become established in the already shallow water and turn once safe sandbar roosts to inhospitable islands of vegetation.
In Grand Island, NE, the Crane Trust is working hard to preserve the natural habitat along the Platte River for both of North America’s cranes – the abundant Sandhill Cranes, and the world’s rarest Whooping Cranes who also rely on this waterway during their 2500 mile migration to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
Photo by Ted Thousand, ©2014 – all rights reserved.
Sandhill Cranes migrate to wintering grounds in large groups. This image was captured in late fall/early winter 2013 as Sandhills of all ages congregated at staging areas throughout Wisconsin. Agricultural fields were gleaned of waste grain, small invertebrates and plant material over several weeks. Once the cranes built up enough reserves to sustain them on their journey, they stretched their wings to nearly 6 ft. and let warmer rising air lift them to an altitude where they could glide for miles before having to flap again. This method of flight helps conserve precious energy — especially important if resources are scarce along the flyway.
This juvenile Sandhill made his (or her) first migration with his family and spent the winter with them. Parents separate from young cranes in the spring when they establish their nest and begin to raise the next generation of Sandhill Cranes.
Juveniles are distinguished from adults by the lack of bare red skin atop their heads. As the cranes mature, a white cheek patch develops as well. Large groups of cranes seen during nesting season are usually young birds that have not yet found a lifelong partner.
Photo by Ted Thousand, ©2014 – all rights reserved.
Sandhill Cranes living east of the Mississippi River migrate to southeastern North America for the winter. Many of the cranes who nest in Wisconsin winter in Florida. Those who nest farther north in Canada, may not go as far south, but we are fortunate in Wisconsin to see them as they make their way on migration. They are the birds who are here very late in the season – possibly staying most of the winter if the weather is mild enough for them to find food and open water. Click on the photo to see a larger image.
photo copyright 2013, Ted Thousand – all right reserved
There is dancing…and then there is Zugunruhe!!
All species of cranes dance – to strengthen pair bonds with their mates, relieve stress – and, just maybe, because it’s fun. But Zugunruhe (German for zug – to move, and unruhe – anxiety) describes the restlessness of migratory species just before they leave on their journey. The Sandhill Cranes that have been feeding in the cornfields of south central Wisconsin these past few weeks are becoming restless. So I will continue to share photos of them while they are here, because all too soon they won’t be…
Once again – all photos copyright Ted Thousand. All rights reserved.
Sandhill Cranes migrate in family groups, such as this pair with two juveniles! Cranes lay two eggs each season, but often just one chick will survive to fledge and then migrate south with its parents. When food is abundant and the parents teach their chicks good survival skills, both survive and become healthy adults. Click on the photo below for a larger image.
The youngsters are distinguished by the lack of bare red skin atop their heads. As they molt and get their adult plumage, the red patch will become more and more visible. By next spring they will look just like their parents.
This year a new technique for reintroducing endangered Whooping Cranes into the wild was added to the tool chest. A parent reared chick (24-13) was raised at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. This juvenile was released at Necedah NWR near the territory of an adult pair (2-04 M and 8-09 F) that did not have a chick this year. They accepted the young bird and the three have been together ever since. Ted caught a glimpse of the new family near the International Crane Foundation in early November as they fed in the agricultural fields along with the more abundant Sandhill Cranes.
Remember to report any sightings of banded cranes – Whooping or Sandhill – at Savingcranes.org
Each fall during migration, large flocks of Sandhill Cranes congregate in agricultural fields to glean waste grain. Nearby wetlands, including sandbars on the Wisconsin River, provide safe roost areas for the night. Sandhills are generalists – adapting to a variety of situations for feeding, nesting and roosting. They are more tolerant of human disturbance than our other North American crane species, the Whooping Crane. In rural Sauk County, observing these sizeable flocks from the car is of little consequence to the birds.
Juvenile Sandhills (above) lack the bright red head of the adults.
In an average year the cranes have moved on by mid to late November, but in 2011, Ted and a friend counted more than 5,000 Sandhill Cranes during the Audubon Christmas bird count in December as they flew in to roost on the Wisconsin River.
Photos by Ted Thousand. All rights reserved.