The alarm clock woke us at 4:15 am. I muttered to myself, why would anybody in their right mind get up at this time. However, we scurried around to dress, pack our lunch, and load the car. By 5:30 am, we were on our way to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Game Area to observe the Sandhill crane annual migration from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada. As we started our trip, the setting moon was a rusty orange.A flock of Sandhill cranes circling the rich blue sky.
We arrived at the Jasper-Pulaski observation site at 7:30. It was a chilly 27 degrees with a light breeze. Frost covered the ground. The horizon had a pink glow shortly before sunrise. The noisy flocks could be heard in the roosting marsh, and several hundred Sandhill cranes could be seen in the Goose Pasture. Earlier in the week, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimated 25,092 cranes in the Fish and Sandhill cranes in an open fieldGame Area. You might say this place is for the birds. As the sun lifted above the horizon, groups of cranes started to fly out of the roosting marsh. At first, it was a trickle. But as the day got brighter, more and more cranes headed to the surrounding fields to forage. The warm morning sun was behind our back as the cranes flew over us. A group of deer grazed in the field among the cranes. It is still hunting season, and the deer seemed to sense Goose Pasture was safe from encroaching hunters.
The feathers of sandhill cranes are a rusty brown. Cranes fly with their necks outstretched. In contrast, herons, with their heavy neck and bill, pull their head pulled in. The red of the crane’s forehead is not plumage but rather bumpy skin. Cranes have been symbols of longevity, good fortune, happiness, and grace.
At times, the sky was swarming with cranes as they circled the rich blue sky above us. The cranes have a unique, unmistakable, trilled voice that can be heard for long distances. It is sometimes described as a loud, rattling bugle call.
A flock of Sandhill cranes standing in a fieldAs the day progressed, we drove around the surrounding countryside to find flocks of cranes in the field. They spend the day feeding in harvest farm fields. We headed northwest of the fish and game area as we searched the fields for cranes. After driving a few miles, we found several fields with large flocks. Some of the cranes were foraging for seeds, tubers, large insects, and other invertebrates, but many stood stoically, enjoying the warm sunshine. Occasionally, we would see a display of the crane’s dance. Dancing is more common during the breeding season, but the dances can be seen all year long. Greek and Roman myths have portrayed the crane’s dance as a love of joy and a celebration of life. The dance involves wing-flapping, bowing, and jumping. The cranes stand about 4 feet tall on their pencil-thin legs. These majestic cranes have a 7-foot wingspan.
As ground-dwelling species, Sandhill cranes are at risk from predators. Cranes are skittish around people but have become acclimated to cars. When we found groups of cranes in the field, we stayed in the car to photograph them.
Sandhill cranes return to the roosting marsh as the sun is settingWe returned to the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Game Area as evening approached. The parking lot was filling up. Spectators and photographers lined the viewing deck and along the fence. As the sun was setting, I was able to photograph silhouettes of the cranes against the sky’s golden glow. One could only stand in awe as wave after wave of Sandhill cranes returned to the roosting marsh.
After the sun had sunken below the horizon, it was time for us to make our two-hour return trip home. It was a long but rewarding day. The cranes had shared their happiness and good fortune.
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