It was right around this time last year, on a cold day in March, when I saw, so unexpectedly, the sandhill cranes for the first time. There was no question as to what they were. I was driving when I spotted them foraging in the stubbly cornfield off Allyndale Road, just below the Massachusetts line in Canaan, Connecticut. Pale gray, four feet tall – two unmistakable sandhill cranes. I pulled over and watched them for a minute. I happened to have my camera so I got out, zoomed in and snapped a single picture before they sensed my presence and lifted off. A squall of light snow had started falling and they flapped off silently against the gray sky, heading east into the hills of New Marlborough.
This is not a bird one associates with the Northeast. Sandhill cranes–not to be confused with the ubiquitous great blue heron, which some people colloquially refer to as a crane–breed across most of Canada into Alaska, dropping down into the upper Midwest and the Mountain West. The first one I ever saw was in Yellowstone, during the summer. There is also a year-round population in Florida (they are so common there, they are dismissed as “junk birds,” a birder visiting from Florida told me). Their courtship dances and migrations are great spectacles, with flocks by the hundreds gathering in some locations, their rattling bugle sounds making a beautiful racket.
But this mostly happens along flyways in the Great Plains. Several years back, I was in the San Luis Valley of Colorado when the cranes came through in March. The Monte Vista Crane Festival even celebrates their passage. During the season, 20,000 cranes pause to feed on grain in the extensive farm fields of the valley. Habitat-wise, it sort of made sense that I was seeing these representatives in the fallow cornfields of Canaan – much less grand environs, but similar.
“Guess who just saw two sandhill cranes,” I texted my friend in Colorado, who had mentioned he would be at the crane festival that very weekend. He was duly shocked and asked how rare that was. “Maybe they heard about the crane festival,” I added.
At first I thought I was privy to a fairly rare sighting, but then I looked on eBird and pulled up a map of crane sightings. In recent years, in that southern corner of Massachusetts and the northern edge of Connecticut, people were reporting cranes left and right! Scattered sightings were spread all over the Northeast, but this seemed a veritable hotspot. There was another cluster of sightings up near Worthington. Two days after I saw my cranes, four were reported in the same general area.
The reported sightings coincided with migration, many of them during April, with a good amount in May and then some in the autumn. People reported individual birds, pairs or small groups, many of which lingered in the area for some time. They returned to “frequented locations,” and even hung out in people’s yards.
Unbeknownst to me, this is exactly what I would end up observing last summer while working in the woods in northwest Connecticut. The local cranes were well known, and I’d sometimes walk by one particular yard and see a couple of them loitering about, often right on the picnic table.
What are they doing on the East Coast? Well, some winter in the south and, if they are headed to Quebec or Ontario, this is not out of the way. There are also some localized spots in the northeast where the cranes breed–in Pennsylvania, in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in western New York since 2003, in Maine’s Belgrade Lakes watershed since 2000. So it’s quite possible that the local cranes are breeding somewhere in the marshy, boggy areas of Berkshires or just over the Connecticut line and not merely migrating through.
The crane seems to have been common in the Northeast during colonial times but is thought to have been extirpated early on. So as it becomes more common in the east, the crane may not be expanding its range so much as reclaiming its original territory. Either way, it’s an abundant species to the point that there’s a hunting season on it in some states. The very endangered whooping crane is another story, but the sandhill’s overall population has increased steadily over the years, which is not something we often hear.
So keep an eye out for them. While similar in coloration to a great blue heron, cranes have a distinctive red cap and are more uniformly gray than the herons and slightly rusty in the summer. They also have a different posture–whether flying or standing, their necks appear more slender and don’t coil tightly like a heron’s. You’ll know you’re looking at something different.