We’ve all seen those wildlife documentaries where they show thousands of animals gathered in one spot; the one most people think of is the incredible migration of the wildebeests in Africa, right? Thousands and thousands of them running across the plains…it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be there to see something like that in person, but we just know it would be amazing.
Well, last Friday night, Eric and I got to experience something every bit as amazing as that, and only two hours from home. It was the annual gathering of the Sandhill Cranes in southwestern Michigan as they prepare for their southward migration. We’d been watching the daily count tallies from Baker Sanctuary in anticipation of our trip, and when the number hit 3,800 cranes a few days earlier, I started to get very excited. Heck, look how excited I got about our close enounter with just two of them last summer.
We had tickets to a special dinner event that night (more about that shortly), so we decided to go to the sanctuary beforehand to watch the evening fly-in. (Cranes come in to the marsh each evening before dusk to roost, then leave again in the morning.) We got there at 5 pm and I was very surprised to see at least a thousand cranes already populating the marsh. I couldn’t even begin to count all of them, but I’m sure there were more than a couple thousand by the time we left around 6:30. They were a hundred yards away from the closest viewing areas, so I was disappointed not to be able to get close-up photos. But I took a few shots of the large groupings anyway, and shot the smaller groups as they flew over our heads on their way down into the marsh.
The beauty of these large and majestic birds is part of the reason this is fun to watch, but the sounds are even better, in my opinion. The cranes call while flying and after landing, and the entire marsh resonated with their prehistoric-sounding trumpets. If I had to choose only to see or to hear these birds, I’d definitely choose to hear them! Here’s a link where you can listen to their calls. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? It does for me. Just imagine a bunch of birds with a wingspan of 5 to 7 feet flying overhead and making that gurgling sound…it’s one of the most entertaining bird spectacles I’ve ever seen. I tried to take some video to share with you, but the audio was cluttered with some irritating people talking loudly about what they had for dinner, or something equally distracting. (And don’t even get me started on the people who came out to a nature sanctuary and smoked cigarettes the whole time….omg!) Luckily there are plenty of videos on YouTube already — just search for Sandhill Cranes and you’ll get a bunch of choices to watch.
I’m so glad we watched the cranes on Friday night, because Saturday turned out to be such a cold and rainy day that we decided not to spend the day waiting for the evening fly-in the second time. Oh, and after we watched the cranes on Friday night we had dinner with birder extraordinaire Greg Miller and about 80 of his closest friends. It was the Birder’s Soiree, a Michigan Audubon event with dinner, a silent auction, and a nice talk by Greg about his experiences as birding consultant on the movie “The Big Year”. You see, Greg is the real birder who was played by Jack Black in the movie. He told us about his life as a birder and about the thrills he had being on the movie set and getting to meet some of the stars. I’d had a brief conversation with Greg back in August at a shorebirding field trip at Pipe Creek and found him to be a very nice and humble person. His talk after dinner that night gave further evidence of what a kind man he is, and I found his life story inspiring. He told us that the book (upon which the movie was based) stayed very true to facts, at least as they related to his own story. And in particular, I wanted to know about that scene where Jack Black’s character goes into the woods with his elderly father looking for an owl. Greg confirmed that incident happened almost exactly as it was shown in the film. That made me happy because it was a such touching moment between father and son. (If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’d encourage you to rent the DVD and settle in for an evening of laughs and maybe even a bit of an education about birds and birders. (Just remember that the movie was made into a comedy, so they’ve obviously exaggerated some of the events and personalities.)
Just about the only time these birds don’t seem majestic is when they prepare for landing, letting those long, gangly legs droop down below them. It always makes me laugh.
And lest I forget, there were other great birds in the area that night too. We watched two Bald Eagles soaring around a few times, and got to witness a beautiful Northern Harrier soaring low over the marsh hunting for his dinner. There were bunches of Robins, of course, and a few small songbirds that we didn’t pay much attention to. But I kept taking pictures of anything that flew past, even if I didn’t know what it was at the time. Imagine my surprise when I got the photos uploaded and discovered that I’d shot a Pileated Woodpecker flying past! This is a great bird that I don’t get to see often enough. And I also found a life bird in one of the photos — a Ring-necked Pheasant was perched on a dead tree way back in the marsh. I’ve become used to using the computer to zoom in on trees looking for little birds, but this one was so obvious I wondered how I hadn’t noticed it when I was scanning the marsh with my binoculars. What a fun 24 hours this was!