(Chelsea Update would like to thank Tom Hodgson for the information, map and photos in this story.)
The Chelsea area is home to the world’s oldest living bird species. Fossil records of sandhill cranes date back over 10 million years. No other existing bird species in the world can make that claim. However, the draining of their wetland nesting habitats and unregulated market hunting were almost their undoing.
By the turn of the last century, sandhill cranes were rare in Michigan. But, thanks to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, which outlawed market hunting, and the more recent efforts to preserve our the remaining wetlands, sandhills began to make a come-back.
Still in 1942, there were only 17 nesting pairs in the Lower Peninsula, over half of these were found in the Chelsea area. Most nesting pairs only raise one young per year, so the population increase was very gradual. After 70 years of steady population growth, they now number about 24,000 birds state-wide. Jackson and Washtenaw Counties still have the most nesting pairs in the state.
Today, sandhills are a common sight in area fields and pastures. Their booming calls can be heard on a daily basis. In the fall, cranes from all over the state begin gathering in our area as they prepare to migrate to their wintering grounds in Northern Florida.
By late October, local numbers reach nearly 10,000, and in the evenings, they roost in area wetlands to avoid potential predators. Some of their favorite roosting sights include Pond Lily Lake on Harvey Road, Notten Lake on Notten Road, and the Haehnle Sanctuary on Seymour Road.
The Phyllis Haehnle Sanctuary, owned by the Michigan Audubon Society, has a special viewing area to watch these magnificent birds as they fly into the marsh for the night.
Currently about 1,800 birds are roosting there, but those numbers are expected to increase to between 5,000-6,000 by the end of the month. Watching flocks of hundreds of these birds as they descend into the marsh is a real memory maker.
To help everyone enjoy these birds, the Haehnle Sanctuary Committee produces a Crane Viewing Map which is updated each week. It identifies both current feeding and roosting areas and includes information on the best times to see cranes.
The sanctuary is located on Seymour Road, 1½ miles west of Race Road.