On a bright, sunny Saturday in mid-October, Bob and I decided to make a trip to the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario. A fellow birder had reported groups of Sandhill Cranes in that vicinity where corn fields had recently been harvested. At first, we were afraid the drive would be all for naught, but in the end, we located close to 200 of these elegant birds.
Once we determined that we had, in fact, driven to the correct neck of the woods, Bob and I started scanning the fields of corn that had been cut, but lo and behold, the first bunch of Sandhill Cranes that we espied were in a grassy field.
Between us and the small collection of Sandhill Cranes lay a fallow field bordered on the west by a deep ditch filled with water. Bordering the ditch, next to the field, was a dense growth of tall plants that would provide excellent cover should we decide to sneak up on the birds. First, we had to secure permission from the landowner whose house sat on the corner.
Duly pulling into their driveway, we soon ascertained that the house was abandoned, so we took it upon ourselves to park along the road and trudge through the overgrown stretch of grasses and weeds at the edge of the ditch, being sure to keep our heads down below the tallest of them.
We did not kid ourselves! The Sandhill Cranes were quite aware of our presence, but we did manage to cut the distance in half from that when standing at roadside. The Cranes soon took to the air, and we set off to find more Cranes in neighbouring fields.
Time seemed to stand still as we circulated around a series of backroads with our eyes peeled and the binoculars raised. When we spotted this lovely trio of Sandhill Cranes at close range, we pulled onto the shoulder of the road.
I love the elegance of these tall grey birds with their long legs and long necks, and adding to their stylish appearance is the bustle at the end of their short tail, formed by long feathers that gracefully droop.
These three Sandhill Cranes used controlled strides to move back and forth parallel to the gravel road, and vocalized between themselves as they did so. Their calls sounded like a rattling croak, as you can hear in the video below.
Bob and I sat in the car to eat our picnic lunch with a view to another group of Sandhill Cranes in a farmer’s field. It so happened that the farmer was going about his business with a large piece of machinery in the far end of the same field.
Long before seeing these Sandhill Cranes, we could hear them coming towards us. Their distinctive rolling bugle calls can be heard from as far away as 2.5 miles, often before they can be seen flying very high overhead. The broad wingspan of Sandhill Cranes, between 5.5 to 7.5 feet, enables them to soar on thermals much like hawks and eagles.
Sandhill Cranes gather in very large flocks during migration and on their wintering grounds, and this small flock was on the move south from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of northern Canada. In this instance, they had their sights set on the same field in front of us.
It was at about that time that the farmer drew up next to our car with his harvester towering high above us. Seeing our interest in the Sandhill Cranes, he generously welcomed us to walk through his fields to achieve closer views,
but that was really an unsuccessful endeavour. The Sandhill Cranes spooked…
and flew off in a westerly direction.
Motoring on in search of yet more Sandhill Cranes, it didn’t take long before we located another field and a small flock of the birds on the crest of a distant hill. A roosting or feeding flock of Sandhill Cranes is composed of a number of family units that find safety in numbers. Some flocks number in the tens of thousands, but the flocks we found numbered between 50 to 100 for a total of about 200 birds on this particular outing.
More Sandhill Cranes arrived by the minute. The farmer had told us that by the end of the afternoon, there could be 300-400 at his farm field. The Cranes were intent upon having a good feed of leftover grain, or seeds and tubers, before sunset when they would find a nearby river or shallow lake to roost.
There was much activity even among the Sandhill Cranes on the ground. A number of them repeatedly stretched their wings, leaped in the air, and bobbed their heads similar to behaviour usually seen during breeding season.
Bob and I did swing back by the farmer’s field later in the afternoon, but it lay empty, and we had to begin making our way home. It was hard to tear ourselves away from watching the beautiful Sandhill Cranes. There was an ebb and a flow to their continual movement, and as we saw them take to the air, the soft rush of their wings stirred the still autumn air.
What a sight it must be to see thousands of these elegant Sandhill Cranes on their wintering grounds. For now, we have to be satisfied with seeing only a small percentage of them. It had been a grand day!
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