Sandhill Crane Makes a House Call

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 7:00pm

Any morning that includes a bird photo and the following text exchange, is a good one.

Paige G: “Good morning:) Kate Musso just sent this and is curious what it is?”

Kim G: “OMG where??? Sand Hill Crane. I need to see it!!!”

I was at the banding station handling gray catbirds, yellow warblers and a rose-breasted grosbeak, so I knew I couldn’t just leap into the truck and head for Kate’s yard. I alerted a fellow birder — just in case the bird flew before I got there. I need not have worried. The sandhill crane was not at all skittish and was leisurely plucking at Kate’s yard among the resident mallards when I arrived.

I have seen sandhill cranes before on Block Island, but always from a distance as they were usually in a field or marsh, and very wary.

Although seeing one (or more, as was the case in 2010, when they lingered a few days in Martha Ball’s farm field) is a marvel, their appearance in Rhode Island and New England is increasing. And there is some belief among ornithologists that they were in the northeast U.S. in the late 1600’s and 1700’s. Now-a-days it appears that with the recovery of the population, sandhill cranes are expanding their range eastward, back to New England.

Generally, this long distance migrant winters in northern Mexico, Texas and Florida and then disperses to the grassy plains and wet meadows of the upper midwest, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and throughout Canada for breeding. Given this wide fanning out across the northern part of the continent, it is not unexpected that once-in-awhile a migratory stray will land on the island – as is the case with many species. However, there seems to be an increase in the regularity of Sandhill Crane appearances in RI, and this may be due to the eastward shift of the population. In the last twenty years there have been confirmed nestings of Sandhill Cranes in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts; and, in 2016 one spent the winter in Tiverton, RI.

Sometimes less frequent occurrences of a bird species just add to their allure. I waited – and hoped – for decades to see a cerulean warbler on Block Island. It finally happened in 2018. It may seem odd to think that I’ve seen more sandhill cranes on the Island than Cerulean Warblers. But really it is just a case of population dynamics: as species, sandhill cranes are generally stable — and perhaps reclaiming historical lands, while cerulean warblers are declining. No matter the species, coming upon a bird that is as big and as beautiful as the stately sandhill crane, with its cranberry-colored face and feathery gray and duff-colored plumage, is exciting and a sight to behold, a sight to be appreciated, and a sight of wonder.

See Sandhill_Crane/overview for more information — including its call — about this bird species.