Recently sandhill cranes have been flying through Georgia en route to their wintering grounds in south Georgia and Florida. If you are lucky, you may have the opportunity to hear and/or see these long-legged waders as the pass over your backyard.
Each fall thousands of sandhill cranes leave their nesting grounds in the northern United States and Canada and embark on a journey that will take them to the sunny South. The cranes sighted in the Peach State are known as greater sandhill cranes. They are members of what wildlife biologists call the Great Lakes population. These birds breed in a broad area that extends from the western Great Lakes, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to Illinois and Iowa.
Sandhill cranes migrate in flocks that often number three hundred or more birds. The flocks often fly in long, undulating V-shaped waves. At times groups of three to four individuals will trail the main flocks.
Sandhill cranes are often mistaken for Canada geese. However, if you happen to see large birds passing high overhead, there are a couple of clues that you can use to that will tell you whether they are sandhill cranes or Canada geese.
First of all, listen to the call made by the birds. If they are sandhills, the call will be unmusical and sound something like a rolling karoo, karoo, karoo. In comparison, the Canada goose makes are call that is best described as sounding something like ka-rank or kalunk. This call is much more musical than that voiced by the Sandhill crane. These calls can be heard at least two miles away.
Even if the birds are flying hundreds of feet above the ground, if you are looking at sandhill cranes, you should be able to see their long legs extending far beyond their tails. The legs of the Canada geese never trail behind their tails.
Most of the sandhill cranes that we see here in Georgia are heading to central Florida. There are, however, two major sandhill crane wintering grounds in the Peach State. These special places are located in the Okefenokee Swamp and around the Grand Bay Wildlife Management Area situated near Valdosta. In addition, some birds winter as far north as Cordele and Americus.
Although sandhill cranes travel both day and night, most fly during the daylight hours. In fact, I had never seen or heard sandhills flying at night until last week. One night, during the time that the super moon was bathing the countryside in its pale, cool light, I heard sandhills passing overhead as I was walking the family dog around the yard. As soon as I heard their calling, I immediately dashed into the house to tell my wife what I had heard. Fortunately, she was able to scamper outside to listen the calls pierce the night air too.
During the next few weeks, be on the look out for flocks of these tall, gray birds streaming over the state. You might see them as you are raking leaves in your backyard, or while you are walking across a parking lot. When you see their passing, you will know that Mother Nature is telling you that autumn will soon be giving way to winter.