Mysteries of sandhill cranes around Chicago area: Flights not as simple as they seem, plus Stray CastDale Bowmanon December 8, 2021 at 12:10 pm

Lines of sandhill cranes flying into Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area Thursday at sunset. | Dale Bowman

It took sandhill cranes a while to make the fall flight through the Chicago area to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, though they did in a rush the last few weeks, but those flights are not simply one-and-done; plus the Stray Cast.

MEDARYVILLE, Ind. — As more flew in, thousands of sandhill cranes fed Thursday in the fields around the power plant near Wheatfield, Indiana.

That hyped me on my annual visit to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, the migration site southeast of Valparaiso. But when I climbed the viewing tower, few were visible. People sure were. They were packed two-deep on the tower. Dozens lined the fence below. Then, in the half-hour before sunset and 15 minutes afterward, sandhills krooed and flew in by the thousands.

Dale Bowman
The crowd at the viewing tower at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area Thursday near sunset, as more people arrived.

One group landed close enough for me to see their feet drop like landing gear. Then they walked away. Rarely do groups land close to the tower anymore.

It has been a historically odd fall for sandhills.

‘‘I have worked outside for 50 years and always keep an eye out for the sandhills,’’ Dennis Ponstein emailed last week. ‘‘Are they late this year?’’

‘‘This year has been a unique year, like you mentioned, with the sandhill crane migration being quite late,’’ emailed Allisyn-Marie Gillet, Indiana’s state ornithologist. ‘‘Because of the mild weather, most of the cranes were remaining in the Upper Midwest. . . . The reason for their delayed migration is that there were no strong cold fronts. Cold weather with strong northern winds provide excellent tailwinds that encourage birds to migrate, as tailwinds make it easier for the birds to fly south.’’

The big flight finally came Nov. 21-22. Sandhills piled into Jasper-Pulaski, where the weekly count jumped from 4,452 on Nov. 18 to 28,652 on Nov. 23.

‘‘Amazing how rare they were a couple of decades ago,’’ said Mike Ward, who is working on data from 50 years of spring bird counts in Illinois.

He is the Illinois professor in whose Ward Lab avian ecology and behavior are studied.

In a study, he and student Jeff Fox tracked about 80 sandhills with transmitters and receivers at Chain O’Lakes State Park and Jasper-Pulaski and found that those flights aren’t one-and-done.

‘‘Birds fly down from northeast Illinois, then fly back a couple of days later,’’ Ward said. ‘‘Birds seem to hang around this area. They wait until the very last second until they go. For a bird, they are pushing it. But, again, they are big birds that can fly in those conditions.

‘‘I was surprised. But they can make that trip pretty fast. They are flying high, and they are probably doing 30 to 40 kilometers an hour. To go from northern Cook County to J-P doesn’t take them very long.’’

Ward agreed that migrating sandhills indicate seasonal change for Chicago-area people.

‘‘It is easy for the average person in the outdoors to identify them, and they are so loud that they are good indicators of spring coming or winter coming, if you are outside and look up when you hear them,’’ he said.

When the light dimmed Thursday, the sandhills halted flying.

It was time.

If you are going to Jasper-Pulaski, reach the tower an hour before sunset. I usually drive around nearby fields beforehand.

Dale Bowman
The crowd at the viewing tower at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area Thursday near sunset, as more people arrived.

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