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Visitors Come From Far and Wide to See Sandhill Cranes (with photo gallery)

Photo by Tom Hodgson. Three sandhill cranes.
Photo by Tom Hodgson. Three sandhill cranes.

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Tom Hodgson and the Waterloo Natural History Association for the photos and information in this column. Be sure to look at the slideshow at the end of the story.)

In 1942, there were only 17 nesting pairs of sandhill cranes in Michigan. Nine of those were nesting in Jackson and Washtenaw Counties. Thanks to passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the elimination of market hunting, the protection afforded to Michigan’s remaining wetlands, and cranes remarkable ability to adapt; their population has grown to 24,000.

Jackson and Washtenaw Counties still have the largest nesting concentration of sandhills. And in the fall when cranes from all over the state descend on southern Michigan, about 10,000 of those end up in these two counties. To fatten up before migration, they spend October and part of November feeding on waste grain and insects in area farm fields.

At night, they roost in area marshes. The Haehnle Audubon Sanctuary on Seymour Road in Jackson County is the largest roosting area. When water levels are right, we can expect up to 8,000 cranes to spend their nights in the sanctuary wetlands. These peak numbers usually occur in late October and early November.

As might be expected, 85 percent of the visitors indicated Michigan as their point of origin. Most were from the southeast part of the state traveling from more than 5 miles away. Ann Arbor area was the single highest point of origin while Jackson came in second. Considering its size, Chelsea residents comprised a disproportionate larger number of people.

The sanctuary is recognized as a go-to place, which extends well beyond the borders of Michigan. Twelve percent of the visitors indicated they came from other states. Most were from Ohio followed by Illinois and Indiana, while others literally traveled from 19 states within a rectangle formed by California, Oregon, Florida and Massachusetts. Several visitors even came from nine foreign countries. Surprisingly, the largest number were from China followed by Canada, France, India, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and Australia. Most drive their in private cars, but each year several tour groups are bused in to see the cranes as well.

Crane numbers roosting at Haehnle were down last fall due to high water levels, but that did not seem to disappoint visitors. Only a few commented on the lack of cranes. Instead they commonly used words like “beautiful, awesome, peaceful, and thank you.”

Those who came during the summer often wrote “lots of bugs” or “too many skeeters” while fall visitors often remarked about the vista looking across the marsh framed against a backdrop of beautiful autumn colors.

This year, the water levels at Haehnle are more favorable for cranes, so the number roosting there should be up again. Peak numbers in late October and early November may once again reach 8,000 birds.

Free “color and crane” maps are currently available at the Discovery Center to help visitors find cranes both in area fields and in night roosts. They also include a suggested route to see the best fall colors. The maps are updated weekly.

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1 thought on “Visitors Come From Far and Wide to See Sandhill Cranes (with photo gallery)”

  1. These big birds must represent a substantial contribution to the local economy. I expect many of those crane viewers shop, eat and buy gas…

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