It's never easy to get up early on a Saturday morning (and by early I mean at 4:30 AM), but when there is good reason, I am all for it. Last weekend, Brian Miller, Lynn Vernon, and I joined Kip Miller and several other members of the Berrien Birding Club on a trip that started out with us meeting at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area at 7:15 AM. Our purpose? To see a swoop of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), of course!
We certainly weren't the only lunatics with the idea of braving one of the first really cold mornings of the season. Birdwatchers, photographers, and nature lovers alike flock to J-P annually to witness this event, and sometimes I can't help but wonder if the cranes are there to watch the people.
Just like every other November, the Sandhill Cranes did not disappoint. Each fall (and to a lesser extent in the spring), thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes flock to the area surrounding Jasper-Pulaski during their migration from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern Indiana nesting grounds to their warmer wintering grounds in southern Georgia and Florida. During their stopover, they spend their days feeding mostly on grains and insects in agricultural fields, and their nights roosting in marshes, but the real spectacle is to see them congregate and socialize in Goose Pasture. When we were at J-P, their numbers totaled approximately 13,000. As of November 30, 2010, just two days later, almost 17,000 Sandhill Cranes were tallied. The highest number of Sandhill Cranes ever seen at J-P was in 1991, when 32,000 individuals were estimated.
Lindsay and I have visited J-P several times over the past ten years to see this event, but this trip was different. All of the other times we had made the hour drive to see the cranes, we had done so in the evening, just before sunset. Kip organized this trip for the opportunity to see the enormous, hungry flocks leaving for a day's worth of feeding.
It was definitely worth getting up early, making the long drive, and standing out in the cold!
As the cranes lifted off, their gutteral, rolling, trumpeting chorus blocked out nearly all other sound. As they made clumsy landing approaches with necks, wings, and legs extended, they reminded me of parachutist dropping to the ground.
It is difficult to get an idea of scale in these photographs, but if you've never seen a Sandhill Crane before, these are big birds. They stand approximately four feet tall and have a wingspan of six to seven feet.
As many times as I have been to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, I never tire of going back to see the cranes. If you are within a couple of hours of northwest Indiana and you have never been to J-P to see the Sandhill Cranes during migration, I recommend that you make the trip.