We wanted to witness the spectacle.
While their slate-gray color helps camouflage sandhills in corn stubble, their long necks and bushy tails make their profiles unmistakable. Unlike our year-round resident great-blue herons, sandhills never stand with head hunched into shoulders.
Only the adults' red “cap,” actually a featherless forecrown, accents the cranes' overall gray, although some may wear a rusty wash on upper body feathers. Statuesque, they stand over four feet tall and walk, grazing, with a stately tread, moving slowly with the group. They’re rarely alone, instead feeding in family groups of three to five or in colonial groups of up to several hundred.
That's the phenomenon we wanted to see. The good news: It's easy.
In flight, their seven-foot wingspans make them a formidable sight. Necks straight out and long legs trailing, they fly short distances in single file but long distances in V-formation.
After the sunrise flight, we drove county roads, stopping where we found foraging groups. They ranged in size from 10 to over 1,000, eating grains and invertebrates, almost always in corn stubble. Because the birds generally ignored cars, we could pull to the side of the road, view and photograph from our open car window and not disturb them.
About an hour before dusk, we made a beeline back to the viewing platform. No one should miss the spectacular sunset flight. Skies fill with hundreds of noisy returning birds. They alight first in open grassland, socializing, bugling, and dancing. At dark, they lift off by the hundreds for that last short flight into the marsh, calls hushing to a murmur in the distance as they settle for the night, standing in shallow waters, safe from predators.
Eventually, when snow covers food and drives cranes south to Tennessee and Georgia, watch Tri-State fields for possible appearances.
Fossils show cranes are ancient birds that witnessed earth’s evolution. Today these stately creatures face threats of habitat destruction, particularly of migratory staging areas. J-P preserves one staging area where all of us can witness the spectacle of these million-year-old dignitaries.