Gathering and Going

So far off the road I never would have seen them, a group of twenty Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) caught the eye of the friend who’d accompanied me to the Brazoria Refuge last Sunday. “Cranes!” she exclaimed. “Turn around!” And so I did.

Too distant for clear images, and made somewhat dull by dim, foggy light, two of the birds’ primary field marks — their red crowns and the funny, feather-duster-like tail feathers called bustles — still were visible. If you enlarge the image, even their colorful eyes can be detected.

The cranes are winter visitors to Texas, arriving in October or November and generally departing by February or early March. Gregarious by nature, they can be found feeding in fields, pastures, and coastal marshes. Flock size varies from place to place; this group of twenty is typical of what I’ve seen in our area.

I didn’t expect to see cranes in flight, and wasn’t prepared for the suddenness of their departure. Still, one primary difference between Sandhill Cranes and Great Blue Herons became obvious as they rose above the trees: cranes fly with outstretched necks and legs, while the Great Blue Heron curls its head back and rests it on its body while in flight. As the group gathered more tightly in the sky, I was able to include all twenty birds in a photo.


Another difference helps to distinguish airborne herons and cranes. The Great Blue Heron’s wing beats are slow, and the bird rarely brings its wings above parallel. Sandhill Cranes, on the other hand, are given to sharp, snappy wing movements, and often raise their wings above their bodies.

I hear Sandhill Cranes far more often than I see them. Their calls in flight are  instantly recognizable, and unforgettable. I was lucky on this day not only to see the birds but to hear them as well, as they prepared to join others of their kind in their great migration.


Comments always are welcome.
Clicking on any image will provide more detail.

77 thoughts on “Gathering and Going

  1. Sandhill Cranes are birds to stir the deepest emotions. To hear them is an instant connection to nature. Paul Johnsgard wrote a wonderful little book called “Those of the Gray Wind: The Sandhill Cranes”. If you have never read it, I highly recommend it. It was published in 1981 so is doubtless out of print, but perhaps your local library has a copy. I bought my copy on eBay in 2005.

    1. Thanks for the tip. The University of Nebraska Press has released a new edition with a new preface and an afterword by Johnsgard. I found a copy of the 1986 edition for five dollars; a veritable bargain. I’ll have it by Friday.

      You’re right about the experience of hearing their calls. A trip to the Platte River to experience their migration is high on my wish list. It won’t happen this spring, but there’s always next year.

      1. Five bucks will barely buy a coffee and a muffin these days, so a bargain indeed. Hope you enjoy it, Linda.

    1. From this range map, I’d guess that they do fly over you occasionally, although you’re a little short on the agricultural fields, marshes, and grasslands where they prefer to feed. Even around here, they can be hard to spot on the ground. I’ve sometimes searched for them without success, even though their calls were loud and seemed to be only feet away. The first time I saw them, they were at the edge of a Panhandle cotton field; that was a surprise!

  2. What a thrilling sight! And seeing them in flight, too. I’ll have to pay attention to that. I have made myself promise that this year I will try to get back to the Sandhill Crane Festival in late September when they fly in en route south. They’re stunning birds.

    1. I remember you mentioning that festival, but I didn’t realize it’s in the fall. Do you see them in spring, too? ‘Stunning’ is just the right word. I laugh every time I see those overhanging feathers that do look like a bustle. Sometimes I can’t help but imagine them as a bunch of British matrons gathered in the garden for a bit of gossip!

  3. Another difference between herons and cranes is that you never see any construction herons in a growing city’s skyline. I hope you didn’t have to crane your neck too much to take that picture of the 20 birds.

    Hermione Jaschinski is a distinctive name. In a search I didn’t turn up any others beyond the one whose video you included.

    1. The only other Hermione I’ve known of was the actress Hermione Gingold, although I’ve learned that a character in the Harry Potter series had that name.

      Did you happen to do a search for Hermione Jaschinski? It turns out she’s a Canadian artist who specializes in birds. The painting at the top of her Facebook page is of two cranes. I couldn’t link to that, but I went to her Fine Art America site and found this.

      I wondered if the cranes in the video were her models, and sure enough, she says this on the Fine Art America page: “Fall Winds and Wings was inspired by some video footage that I shot of two gorgeous Sandhill Cranes flying over on a summer day. I wanted to put them against a background of tree tops but thought that the summer greens wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as fall colour. Fall is my favourite time of year, especially when the show of colour is a bit past peak, with the “bones” of the landscape, trees and rocks, showing through the leaves and giving the scene structure.”

      What delightful serendipity!

  4. Frequent sightings of Sandhill Cranes is one of the things I miss most about living in Florida. I drove by a common nesting area coming home from work and watching them was part of my decompression routine. They also frequented a golf course where I played and had become quite tame. There’s nothing quite like sensing someone behind you as you prepare to tee off and turning to look into a Sandhill Crane’s inquisitive face. Thanks for the photos and a trip down memory lane. And those images don’t look fuzzy at all, fog or no fog!

    1. I didn’t realize until I looked at the range map that there are resident populations in Florida and Cuba. I laughed aloud at the thought of you turning to face one of these on the golf course. Obviously, they’ve become accustomed to a human presence in their world, much like the mallards here.

      This article published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was quite interesting. I never would have imagined that they’re so common there, especially in urban areas. We often have White Ibis patrolling expanses of lawn, but they move on fairly quickly.

  5. I can see on land they have similarities with the GBH but when flying they remind me of the swans I saw flying above me. Beautiful pics.

    1. I’d not noticed it, but I see now that swans do fly in the same way, with their necks extended. We’re supposed to have a sunny weekend, so I’m going to try my luck at finding some in flight in better light. I did see some white pelicans flying on this same day; it won’t be long until they reach you, too.

      1. Actually they are quite ‘common’ here and I’ve taken many of their pics. Maybe another two months we’ll first see the Robins and then many others will be back. I’m so glad the swans stayed this winter.

    1. Isn’t it wonderful that people have the equipment and skills to record such things in real time? I especially was pleased that the maker of the first video slowed the speed partway in; it made it easier to see the details of their flight.

  6. back when I still worked at the antique store on Saturdays I was on my way to work one early spring day and I happened to look up and see the sky was filled with cranes. I parked and got a few pictures of them as they were flying in a circular motion rising higher then I unlocked the door and turned on the lights and came back our for a few more pics and they were gone. not one left to be seen. I learned later that the circular formation as they gain altitude is called ketteling.

    1. I first heard about kettling during the raptor migration a few years ago. I read that the term may have come from a pot or kettle boiling on the stove, as the groups of birds seem to “boil” up into the air. I’m so glad that you got to see the cranes’ kettling — and glad you snagged some photos, too. What memories!

  7. Beautiful, beautiful birds! How good that your friend spotted them. I saw them for the first time a few years ago. They were in a field, as you described in your post, and when they flew, they looked as though they had come right out of a Japanese painting. Utterly beautiful.

    1. For a variety of reasons I never got down the coast to see our Whooping Cranes this year; I won’t say they’re more impressive than the Sandhills, but they’re certainly larger, and their black and white color scheme is dramatic. When Whooping Cranes are overhead, there’s no confusing them; I was lucky enough to see one pair this year, but all of these cranes are breathtaking in flight.

  8. I absolutely love Sandhill Cranes. I used to see them in the fields by my dad’s house when I was share-caring him. Then in the fall my husband and I would go to place known to be a gathering place for them before heading south. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands. I love the way they walk. Thanks for the memory!

    1. Lucky you, to have had an experience like that. Their calls are so unusual, even when there are only a few birds. I can’t imagine getting to hear hundreds of them or more at the same time. Jeanie’s mentioned getting to see them, too. I’d never associated them with Michigan, but clearly I need to adjust my thinking! I wonder if your new place will have a birding group that might take trips to places where they gather? That would be wonderful.

      1. There are bird fans at the CCC. They are always posting photos of birds around the lake. Jeanie’s is probably talking about the same place I am. It’s a well known state land area lots of different kinds of birds rest at to gather and move on south in the fall.

    1. Thanks, Jason. I was pleased that the birds were far enough away not to be skittish, and even more pleased that I was able to change the camera’s shutter speed quickly enough to get some decent flight photos. I’d love to see them in Nebraska, too — or even in New Mexico, for that matter. There’s no sense choosing one place or the other because of distance. Bosque del Apache is 900 miles from me, and the Platte River in Nebraska is 940 or so. I wonder how long it would take a crane to cover that?

    1. There is something exciting about migration. I just realized today that the coots have disappeared from the marina where I’m working; now you see them, now you don’t! At least the cranes and pelicans are accomodating enough to fly during the day. The coots fly at night, but unlike those other night-flyers, the geese, they’re quiet, and apparently quite hard to find. That’s all right. It’s enough that they’re on the move.

    1. Isn’t that just the way? I’ve spent hours looking for Sandhill Cranes based on reports that they’re ‘here’ or ‘there,’ and never seen a single one. Then, when they’re least expected, there they are: pure gift.

  9. No matter how often we see and hear them, crane encounters are special.

    Lovely photographs of the group!

    We are fortunate in that Florida has a resident population and we get to see the fluffy yellow/orange babies each year. In the winter, thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes migrating from the north pass through the area and many remain with us until spring.

    1. I’d never thought about the babies, and when I went to have a little peek at them, seeing those bits of fluff with those big parents was something else. You’re so lucky to be able to see them; somehow, I’d assumed the babies could be found only in the far north, in the breeding grounds. Of course, I didn’t realize there are resident Sandhills in Florida and Cuba, or that they seem to roam at will around your golf courses and such. Lucky you!

  10. What a glorious sight in the sky. Love the shot where you’ve managed to capture all 20 cranes.

    Thanks for including those video clips too. The bird sound is certainly distinctive and unmistakable.

    I could watch (and listen to) those Cranes in flight for hours if given the opportunity.

    1. It was such fun watching the birds as they rearranged themselves in the sky. They took off in a vee, decided to change a few places, formed an almost perfect circle, and then ended up like the photo above, all while calling to one another: perhaps to sort things out. Like you, I could listen to them for hours. I’ve never had the chance, but every time I hear them, I impulsively stop, and look, trying to find them in the sky.

  11. You’re right, their tail feathers are like feather-dusters. Wonder if they keep the nests tidy with those? I really like your shots, especially the ones in flight, they’re impressive.

    1. I wondered if those feathery rear ends were useful for protecting babies, too. They look as though they’d spread over a nest nicely, or be a good place to hide. I heard that there still are a few on Galveston Island. I’ve never had much luck actually searching them out, but I know a couple of spots on the Island where they traditionally hang out, so I might give it a try on a blue sky day. As good as the weather’s been, with a steady south wind, they might be gone already.

      By the way: I heard one of the woodpeckers this morning, and took the time to find it. It was hammering away on one of our palm trees. This is the third time I’ve heard one; they seem to be working all of the palms.

      1. Interesting that the woodpecker was in a palm. Something to eat? That’s typically why they tap in trees and I can well imagine that palm trees had some yummies!

        1. It’s going to be interesting to see if the palms survive. They’re already trimming some of our ‘civic’ palms. They look so funny, sticking up into the air with not a single frond. I did read some articles from Florida about woodpeckers using palm trees for nesting: dead palms! Maybe they sense that the palms aren’t going to survive, and they’re getting ready to set up housekeeping. Hard to say. At least the trees are near enough that I can check them every day.

  12. Wonderful photos, Linda. I always look forward to hearing the distinctive call of the cranes as they fly overhead in October and November. Getting all twenty birds in one shot of that group was a very nice feat.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the pics, Yvonne. Like you, I love hearing their calls. They seem to be very vocal when they’re flying; they remind me of geese in that way. There’s something so stirring about migrations — I think it’s a reminder of the constancy of nature. No matter what’s going on in this crazy world, they have things to do and places to go, and they’re not going to be distracted!

    1. It’s wonderful to come across them. Even when I’ve heard reports of them in one place or another, I never find them if I go looking. They’re just suddenly “there” — either standing in a field or calling to one another in flight. I’d love to see their mating ‘dance’ one day, but I’m going to have to visit them elsewhere for that to happen; they just visit us, and breed in the north.

    1. I enjoy roaming around by myself, but there are times when another pair of eyes really helps. I’m pretty good at seeing things right along the roadside, but these were quite a distance off the road. Gray birds on a gray day are hard enough to see as is — I sure was glad my friend spotted them.

  13. Lucky you, thanks to your friend! I love hearing them chatter overhead and look up to see them. It has been years since I have seen any up close. Glad you got a good photo of some.

    1. You’re lucky to have these around, too, along with all the raptors and hummingbirds and such. I suppose we should add in the Whooping Cranes, since they’re probably our most famous bird. The mid-and-south coast is so rich in birds; I hope that next year the various festivals can be held, so that even more people can have those ‘up close and personal’ experiences with the birds.

      1. I love them so much. I remember the first time I saw them here, that I realized what they were. It was September 1999. We’d just come back from the San Francisco bay area and had seen pelicans there. Then came home and saw them here!!!! There are some that stay year round, most years, but mostly they move through. We see them most in April and May, and August through October.

        1. I’ve been trying to figure out why I never associated pelicans with my home state, and I finally decided it’s because we so rarely went east. I’ll bet the pelicans follow the Mississippi, and make use of the wetlands in your part of the state. Now, pheasants? Red-winged blackbirds? Robins? Meadowlarks? Those were my ‘Iowa birds’!

  14. Science says that birds are descendants of the dinosaurs. I can’t look at a robin or grackle or blue jay and see dinosaurs, somehow, but I can look at these birds and think, yep. I see it. I have a bias for the lengthy elegance of the cranes and egrets. They please my internal aesthetics no end.

    1. Their long-leggedness is part of their charm. It’s more than sheer size; it’s the proportion. I see it in small birds, too, like the kildeer and black-necked stilts, but when these cranes are on the wing, it is easy to imagine an ancient creature. I’d always associated them with such as the Pterodactyl, until I learned that the Pterodactyl wasn’t a dinosaur, but a winged, flying reptile. Oops.

  15. I made it to the Platte for the migration (only) twice while we lived in Omaha. The first was an overnight excursion with Batty’s high school class and we were in a blind when the morning broke. It was memorable, but conditions were such that it was not very photographically rewarding. I’ll never forget it, though. My heart still stirs when I hear their haunting, croaking calls from far above once in a while when we’re in Minnesota.

    1. The good news is that we don’t always need photos to remind us of certain experiences. I’ve always thought that Annie Dillard gets it just right in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

      “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut.”

  16. One of my favorite things about Florida was sandhill cranes and their ever present status in much of the state. I never understood how they could be so protected in one state and hunted in others.

    1. I hadn’t realized they’re year-round residents of both Florida and Cuba, or that they’re protected there because of declining numbers. If I remember correctly, it’s partly because of habitat loss, which also helps to explain why they’re so common on golf courses there — like our white ibis.

      It’s true that hunting them is allowed here in Texas, but it’s not exactly open season. This map shows the areas of the state that are closed to any hunting, including most of our area and the land surrounding the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. No mystery why that’s included! As I was looking through some other states’ regulations, it was good to see that in some states, like Alabama, their numbers are increasing significantly enough that limited, and highly regulated, hunting is allowed.

    1. Once you hear them, you’ll never forget it — or confuse it with the call of any other bird. My hope is to see them gathered together during migration, but that won’t happen in my part of Texas. In a way, I don’t mind. I’ve read that at the various sandhill crane festivals there are times when the humans rival the birds for sheer numbers, and I’d rather find an isolated twenty than fight the crowds.

  17. I think I’ve read that you can see large migrating sandhill crane groups in the plains states. Bird migration is fascinating – so is insect migration. Tiny warblers fly from South America to the tundra, Monarchs from as far north as Canada to Mexico. And there are other insect migrations: other butterflies migrate different distances (Comma, Question Mark, Painted Lady), and some dragonflies (Green Darner) migrate as well.

    1. I first became aware of dragonfly migrations when our National Weather Service sent out an alert that they’d become visible on radar. Birds and bats I’d seen, but dragonflies? There were so many they made for quite a cloud. It was fascinating.

      By the way, you need to check out my current post about the cranefly orchid. Believe it or not, it can be found in the Cape Cod area, too. GoBotany has it on its site, with some great photos. It shows up only in Massachusetts; none of the surrounding states have it. There’s one of your rare plants!

  18. The map says that they do breed here but I have only seen one and that was about 60 years ago. I’d love to see and hear them. You were lucky to have your friend spot them for you so you didn’t have to crane your neck for spotting.
    I especially like the background in the first image, dully lit which helps them stand out a bit more.

    1. There were quite a few pieces of old equipment and some outbuildings around, so I was glad to have that treeline as a background for a few of the birds. Cardinals stand out no matter what; gray birds are a little harder, no matter their size.

      A good spotter’s always a help, especially when they’ve learned that “Oh, look at that” isn’t very helpful. It only leads to “Where? What?” I knew my hill country friend was developing the knack when she yelled “Pink! Stop!” And there they were: three blooming lace cacti almost hidden by rocks. Again, they were only twenty feet off the road, but I wouldn’t have seen them.

    1. Luck is key, I’d say — at least for someone like me, who doesn’t have the time to scoot off to wherever someone just has spotted them. In a way, I like just bumping into them casually; it’s very much like a little unexpected gift.

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