(Chelsea Update would like to thank Tom Hodgson and the Waterloo Natural History Association for the information and photos in this column.)
The sandhill crane stands 4-feet tall with a 6-and-a-half-foot wingspan. Its booming calls can be heard from a mile or more away. If that is not impressive enough, the sandhill crane is also the oldest living bird species in the world. Their fossil remains date back some 10 million years. There are six subspecies of sandhill cranes.
The greater sandhill crane is the largest and is the one that is found in Michigan.
The great blue heron, another large gray bird also common in the area, is sometimes confused with the sandhill crane. The great blue heron always flies with its neck in an S curve and its head resting on its shoulders. Cranes fly with their necks stretched straight out. Herons have an opposable toe on each foot that allows them to perch and nest in trees. Cranes do not and are never seen in trees.
The Waterloo Recreation Area and the surrounding counties are the center of the greater sandhill crane’s world in Michigan. Both historically and today there are more sandhill cranes nesting in Jackson and Washtenaw counties than anywhere else in Michigan. In the 1940’s there were only 17 nesting pairs of sandhill cranes in the state. Most were located in and around the Waterloo Recreation Area.
The park’s 3,000 acres of protected wetlands and the adjacent 1,000-acre Haehnle Sanctuary owned by the Michigan Audubon Society, provided vital nesting habitat for the cranes.
The passage of Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 and the protection of Michigan’s remaining wetlands has allowed these magnificent birds to slowly recover from their all-time low numbers.
Today, there are an estimated 24,000 in the state. Much of the sandhill crane’s remarkable recovery is also due to its incredible adaptability. Historically, they required open prairies for feeding and extensive marshlands for nesting. When the largest marshes were drained for farming and the prairies were plowed under to plant crops, the cranes adapted. They soon began nesting in the remaining wetland fragments and learned to find food in pastures and hay fields.
Sandhill cranes also exhibit other behaviors that contribute to their survival. Their normal body color is gray, which does not blend in well with the brown foliage of a spring marsh. To correct this, the cranes pull up soggy, tannic acid stained vegetation from the marsh and rub it all over their feathers, turning them rusty brown so while nesting they are all but invisible against a background of dried cattail leaves.
Cranes are also exotic dancers. They jump and dance, often with wings spread, in a very dramatic fashion. No one knows for sure why they dance, but some surmise that it helps to create stronger pair bonds. Sandhill cranes usually mate for life, and can expect to live seven to ten years in the wild.
Although those who visit the WRA between March and November have a good chance of seeing cranes, the best time to view large numbers is in the fall when birds from Northern Michigan and Canada stop here to rest and fatten up before beginning their migration to Florida and other Southern states for the winter.
During this fall staging season it is not unusual to see flocks of 100 or more feeding in area farm fields. In the evenings, the Haehnle Audubon Sanctuary becomes the focus as most of the 10,000 or so birds feeding in the area fly there to spend the night. The fall build up begins in late September and reaches its peak in early November when as many as 8,000 cranes may fly into the sanctuary each evening.
In October and November, visitors can pick up a “crane viewing map” at the Discovery Center that identifies many of the fields the cranes are currently using. The map is updated weekly through mid-November. The map also includes a suggested route to view the Park’s best fall colors. Waterloo Recreation Area is Michigan’s most ecologically diverse state park and can also boast the greatest variety of brilliant fall colors.