Sunday, January 20, 2013
Sandhill Crane Festival
As we arrived at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, a heavy layer of frost coated everything. Only two or three birds could be seen through the fog, and even they disappeared as the fog thickened. I assumed there was water somewhere, but we sure couldn't see it. The strange rattling kar-r-r-o-o-o drifted up to the birders sipping coffee as they waited for the fog to lift. Sounding and looking like ghosts, one or two of these large birds appeared and faded into the fog calling... By 10:30 we had enough light to see the water, and hoped to see thousands of Sandhill Cranes.
Birders are used to this though. "Oh, yeah," someone says, "We have thousands of _____ (fill in the blank with the name of the birds you want to see)." But it rained all week in Tennessee and most of them must have moved elsewhere. The birds we saw, however, were beautiful as they grazed in the corn stubble along the water's edge. All cranes are omnivorous. Sandhill Cranes are generalists and feed on a wide variety of plant tubers, grains, small vertebrates (e.g. mice and snakes), and invertebrates such as insects or worms. Sandhills find these foods in uplands and in shallow wetlands. Like most cranes, flightless chicks forage primarily on a diet of insects and other protein filled foods during their early stages of rapid growth. The Sandhill's tendency to feed on plant tubers creates conflicts with farming. Sandhill Cranes are adept at probing in the ground and finding planted agricultural seeds such as corn. When large flocks of cranes feed on planted fields, the damage they cause to an unprotected crop can be severe enough to force the farmer to replant the entire field.
A speaker from the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, WI, expanded our knowledge of cranes. The different sub-species of Sandhill Crane vary greatly in size and weight. Lesser Sandhills, who breed at more northern latitudes such as the arctic, are the smallest, weighing on average about 6-7 pounds and standing 3-3.5 feet tall. At the other end of the extreme, temperate-nesting Greater Sandhills (the ones we saw) are the largest sub-species and average 4.5-5 feet tall and 10-14 pounds. Body plumage is characterized by varying shades of gray. In many areas, wild Sandhills preen iron-rich mud into their feathers creating a deep rusty brown hue which lasts during spring and summer. As fall advances, these rusty feathers molt and the birds return to their grayish appearance.
We all scanned the air for more birds. You could find a few flying together, but if you looked closely, more and more skeins (I think that's what they are called) could be seen in the distance. The sun was warm and bright, and I think many of the cranes took advantage of the good weather to continue their migration southward. I'm not really sure how much farther these birds might go, since it is the middle of January already. Different populations travel to different wintering grounds. Dick and some of the others saw a few Whooping Cranes, but I missed them.
Throughout the day, we had great luck finding raptors. Several different Bald Eagles, both adults and immatures came to the Refuge, along with a Golden Eagle. As we debated the identity of these brown eagles, one birder came up with a good rule of thumb. "Think chocolate," he advised. "The Golden Eagle is the color of milk chocolate and the Bald Eagle is more like dark chocolate." Sounds good to me! We also spied a Merlin, American Kestrels, lots of Red Tail Hawks, a pair of Northern Harriers and a Cooper's Hawk. In my book, this certainly made up for a rather slow day for the Cranes!
The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is run entirely by volunteers, and they don't charge anything to attend. Kudos to everyone who worked so hard all weekend - the volunteer birders, shuttle bus drivers, TWRA, and all the sponsors and vendors. It's hard to choose between wonderful presentations in a room vs. freezing your toes off in the field for the bird of a lifetime! Brian "Fox" Ellis, the storyteller, attended the dinner Saturday night as Charles Darwin. Since I studied Darwin after our trip to the Galapagos, I especially enjoyed his performance. I understand, however, that the little country school that serves as home base for the festival, will be closing next year, and hope they can make new arrangements. After all, you never know which year will be the one when there actually ARE thousands of cranes to be seen! Birders are always hopeful!