Sandhill Spectacle

Sandhill Cranes (CC BY 2.0) by Peter & Michelle S

Who can complain about this year’s fall weather? For the most part it has been stunningly comfortable for any outdoor activity.

Oh I’ve heard a few grumblings about temperatures being a bit too warm at times for deer hunting. Some think it may slow down the breeding activity and perhaps it may. But the rut only happens once a year and it will take place whether the temperature is 18 degrees or 80.
But our beautiful third season provides more than just hunting or capitalizing on the fall fishing frenzy. It’s a time to put leaf raking or garage cleaning on the back shelf.

Each year about this time one of our nation’s most unique wildlife spectacles happens right here in Indiana. It takes place at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, located near Medaryville, about an hour’s drive northwest of Kokomo.

As the air turns brisk and leaves morph into their brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow, thousands of sandhill cranes begin congregating on J-P’s shallow marsh on their journey south. These Hoosier marshes are one of the largest resting places in the United States for these huge clattering birds. Cranes are birds of open grasslands, meadows and wetlands and the sky literally swarms with them on their return to Hoosier soil.

“The birds are coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada,” said long time J-P property manager, Jim Bergens. “We have the perfect habitat that they like and often times migrating cranes may spend several weeks here which is why we build such huge numbers.”

“We’ve been the last five years,” said Kokomo’s Paula White, who with her husband Steve, make several trips to J-P each fall. “It’s a short, beautiful drive and to see this take place in Indiana is really very cool,” Steve added.

Standing nearly four feet tall on pencil-like legs, these birds sport a red forehead, white cheeks and long dark pointed bill. Their wingspans push seven-feet, making them one of the largest bird species.

The first big push usually takes place in October, but this year’s unseasonably warm weather has delayed it. These early arrivals are harbingers of even higher numbers which usually peak in November, usually lasting until mid-December, depending on weather.

During their fall migration, some 13,000 to 16,000 birds make Indiana their short term residence. The highest population of 32,000 cranes occurred during the 1991 migratory season. Currently, over 8,000 birds have been gathering at the fish and wildlife area daily, but that number is expected to grow.

Gregarious in nature, these raucous birds can be seen soaring over Indiana skies in high flying V’s or circles. Many times they can be heard before being seen. Cranes have unique unmistakable voices that can be heard for miles when in flight. Some people describe it as a long rolling rattle.

The best place to view the sandhills at Jasper-Pulaski is from the handicapped accessible observation towers next to an area known as Goose Pasture. Although cranes can be seen throughout the day, the best time to witness their huge numbers is a few hours after dawn and at sunset.

At sunrise cranes leave the resting marsh in gigantic, noisy flocks to gather in Goose Pasture where they mingle and gab loudly before taking flight on seven foot wingspans for short flights to nearby feeding areas. About sunset, they return on full bellies to socialize before flying off to roosting areas.

One of the birds most striking and peculiar behaviors is the dance they perform. The humorous sequence begins with the bird bowing low then jumping into the air. The crane then settles back to the ground, sometimes throwing leaves and small twigs over its shoulder.
This routine is amusing especially when they decide to perform this dance with their own shadow. Scientists believe this routine is a form of creating new friendships or reaffirming existing ones.

The Jasper-Pulaski FWA is located in a region once famous for the vast Kankakee Marsh. These wetlands consisted of more than one million acres of reeds, ponds and bogs. In the 19th and early 20th century the marsh was drained to make way for agriculture. Today, only 8142 acres remain.

Revenues used in land acquisition, development, operation and maintenance of Jasper-Pulaski, as well as other fish and wildlife areas are generated from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Funding also comes from the federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson programs to promote and aid fish and wildlife restoration. These funds are derived from taxes levied on hunting and fishing equipment. This is just one area where Indiana hunters and anglers stand proud to provide this property for the enjoyment of all people.

Information, including daily migration numbers are updated weekly and can be found on-line or can be obtained by contacting Jasper-Pulaski FWA at (219) 843-4841

sandhill crane
Sandhill cranes in flight. Photo Brent T. Wheat
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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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