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.