Friday, June 17, 2011

An Appalachian Sandhill Crane

Friday, June 17, 2011
We get a lot of telephone calls about birds at Bird Watcher's Digest, as you might expect. People call in with all kinds of questions (I found a baby bird, what do I DO? There's a weird bird at my feeder! What is it? How do I attract more Kirtland's warblers to my bird feeder? What are the Baltimore Orioles going to do about their horrible relief pitching?).

And we get lots of calls with bird sightings. Some of these calls are about birds returning in spring (hummingbirds, for example) or arriving in fall (juncos). In fact for years I got an annual call from a woman up the Ohio River to let me know she'd seen "the first robin of spring." This seemed to give her such satisfaction that I did not have the heart to tell her that American robins often spend the entire winter here in southeastern Ohio.

Every so often we get a call about a strange bird and it turns out to be an awesome sighting. Back in the early 1990s we got a call from a non-birding acquaintance who had seen "a large white pelican-like bird" up at Newell's Run. Sure enough, she'd found Washington County's first-ever (or at least the first-ever recorded) American white pelican. We've gotten calls about rufous hummingbirds, peregrine falcons, tundra swans, black terns, bald eagles, and even earlier this spring—a Bullock's oriole. Some of these sightings are more unusual than others and for some odd cosmic/karmic reason a lot of them come in when I'm away on a trip.

I've never been much of a rarity chaser—oh there were a few years when I lived in new York City when my friends Bob, David, Starr, and I chased quite a few vagrants around the East. But we missed a lot of them and I kind of lost my taste for the chase. Now that I own some land of my own (80 wooded acres in southeastern Ohio) the list I most love to add a bird to is our property list (currently hovering somewhere around 186 species).

Still there are some sightings that you've just GOT to check out. This was the case yesterday when the phone rang and a longtime Washington County resident told my mom that she had a weird bird that was hugely tall and she was "pretty sure it wasn't a great blue heron." My mom talked her through a few possibilities and they came to the conclusion that it was probably a sandhill crane. My mom told me about this bird about 4 pm and handed me the directions to the farm field where the bird had been seen. Daughter Phoebe was working with me at the office and I was entangled in a few projects, so we could not break away until 6:15 pm to go after the bird.

At 6:15 pm yesterday, as we were leaving the BWD offices, a big thunderstorm was arriving. We found the farm, picked up Donna, the woman who reported the bird, and went looking. Rain, rising mist, and imminent nightfall all conspired to keep the bird from our view for about 45 minutes as we drove along a cart path through a neighbor's corn and barley field. No joy. We turned around and started back toward the main road. Donna and the neighboring farmer had seen the bird that same day and the day before, so I had a hunch it might still be around.

As we drove back out the path, I stopped the van and told Donna and Phoebe that I wanted to climb to a high point in the field to scan the one section we'd been unable to see from the path. I did this and scanned, finding nothing. As I turned to go, two small birds flew up from an adjacent field that was contour planted in alfalfa. They turned out to be eastern meadowlarks, but as I followed their flight path with my (crummy) office binocs, a large gray and rust bird came into view!

SANDHILL CRANE! My first-ever sandhill in Ohio! I looked back down the hill and gave the gals the thumbs up. The crane was feeding and preening leisurely. And then it called once, which gave me goose flesh! Such a wild-sounding bird!

Sandhill cranes have bred in northwestern Ohio in one or two places for a few years. And they migrate over Ohio in spring and fall, though I believe their path takes them farther to the west than our corner of the Buckeye State. I've dreamed of adding this species to our farm property list, and as the eastern population (nesting in Michigan and to the north and west) expands, perhaps my chances at this are increasing.

[A disturbing side note: Kentucky and Tennessee have recently tried to establish hunting seasons on sandhill cranes. Tennessee has put a two-year moratorium on the hunt. Kentucky pushed the hunt through hastily. You can read more about this whole issue on Vickie Henderson's blog here and on Julie Zickefoose's blog here. I'm not anti-hunting, but I DO feel there are some species we should not hunt because they are so special, so wonderful, so inspiring to see. And sandhill cranes are among the most inspiring of all creatures.]

Having spotted the lone sandhill, I knew I needed to spread the word among my birding pals. It was too late in the day to get them out immediately, so we made plans to return early today (Friday, June 17).

Steve, Shila, Cheryl, Sage, Julie, and I met at the Berg Church in the dewy sunshine and started scanning. We drove back to the spot I'd seen the bird last night and walked up the hill. Halfway along, Julie blurted "It's calling! I can hear it!" Sure enough, just as we crested the hill, Steve spotted the crane foraging in a strip of still-standing barley. Not a single one of us had grabbed our cameras as we got out of the vehicles! Major bummer!

The sandhill noticed us and walked off, then flew slowly, calling, to the far end of the complex of fields. We relocated ourselves and then re-located the bird and were able to get long, satisfying looks.

We watched the crane, making notes about its red crown, its rusty gray body feathers, its apparent lack of leg bands. It seemed perfectly healthy, which was good.

Members of the Whipple Bird Club flash the club's hand sign to celebrate the sandhill crane sighting.

Since it was a life bird for a few of our group, we celebrated with a Life Bird Wiggle. This was an amazing bird to see in southeastern Ohio in mid-June. And all thanks to a phone call from a kind, curious acquaintance. Thanks Donna!


On June 17, 2011 at 12:31 PM Unknown said...

Very cool report of the Sandhill Crane sighting!

Interesting that your birding club has gang-like hand signs. Do neighboring birding clubs have their own signs? and do you regularly rumble over territory disputes or bird sighting claims?

On June 17, 2011 at 4:35 PM cyberthrush said...

What a great story to share! Must've been an exhilarating feeling!!

On June 17, 2011 at 5:08 PM Catbird said...

Great story, and wonderful that you got to share it with Julie and friends.

Now I'm off to get some brass knuckles for tonight's rival bird club beat down.

On June 21, 2011 at 4:23 PM Mpho Phiri said...

What an experience. I wish I was there.Good story.

On June 29, 2011 at 2:13 AM Liquid Roof said...

I like this type of experiences, I will also go places like this.