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Cold wind, rain, hail don't keep people from Sandhill Cranes

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

For some people it’s not geese flying south… or robins… but another much bigger bird that signals winter is on its way.

This past weekend a couple dozen or so people gathered in a remote area near Jackson to watch cranes, the Greater Sandhill Crane to be specific.

“Yeah! I thought it would be beautiful to see several hundred of them coming in at the same time. I think they’re gorgeous,” said Beth King from Durand.

King is one of several people who drove more than an hour to get to the Michigan Audubon Society’s Haenle Sanctuary.

Armed with binoculars or cameras that would give a photo bug a case of lens envy, more and more people showed up as dusk got closer and the birds came to roost in the marsh.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
In the distance, the grey cranes look white against the dark sky.

Besides the amateur birders and photographers, families braved the chill and the rain to see the birds. The Shaheen family drove from Canton. Eight-year-old daughter Shia wasn’t all that clear about what to expect.

“We’re trying to look at cranes, I think,” she said. When told the birds are actually taller than she is, her eyes widened. “Four feet tall? It’s like bigger than I imagined. That’s a lot.”

Some years thousands of migrating cranes gather here to roost after spending the day in nearby corn fields scavenging for kernels left behind after harvest. They’re fattening up for the flight south.

Ron Hoffman is the resident expert here, although he wouldn’t call himself that. He says he’s just a volunteer here to greet people who visit. He says there are not thousands of cranes this year at Haenle, just two or three hundred. The water in the marsh is a little higher than the cranes like this year.

“It could be that the beaver have plugged up the outlet so that has caused the water levels to go up. And the other factor is that the weather has been quite mild so a lot of the cranes are farther north, but maybe the last day or two here we’ll start getting movement down,” Hoffman said.

As we talk a few of the birds, maybe four or five, circle over the marsh.  It’s been raining a little and the grey birds almost look white against the dark sky. Hoffman says when the cranes fly through in the spring, they’re not so much grey, but a rusty brown color.

“There one of the few species of birds that purposely color their feathers. They pick up bits of vegetation and mud that has iron oxide in it and that’s what they rub on their feathers and that stains, then, the feathers,”  Hoffman explained. Apparently it helps the birds blend in with the brown cattails in the spring.

Hoffman says the Sandhill Cranes will soon make the trip back through Indiana, then Tennessee, to central Florida. Although recently, the birds have been wintering over in Tennessee… possibly because of climate change.

“One school of thought is that it is warming. There are probably some other factors that enter into that with changing in farming practices and protected areas so that you have wildlife areas with no hunting in them.”

The Sandhill Cranes population has been increasing over the years after nearly dying out. They were down to fewer than a thousand birds in 1940. Now, there are about 100 thousand Greater Sandhill Cranes.

When the hail started –it was only pea-sized—a few people left. But, not Orma Robbins. 

“As long as it doesn’t get any bigger.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Orma Robbins was prepared for rain, but surprised by pea-sized hail as he waited on the cranes to return to the marsh.

Robbins is a photographer from Royal Oak. He pulled out a yellow poncho and sat out the hail.

“I got a look at two up close and just the opportunity to see a bunch of them together is probably well worth the effort.”

The hail cleared. The rain eventually stopped.

The people who gathered to watch the birds come in as the sun set didn’t seem to mind the chill or the fewer number of cranes this year. Just watching the birds gather, fueling up for their trip south, was enough.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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