The Nature Devotional, The Spirit Journal

Sandhill Crane Day

There is an empty-seeming fire house—it looks more like a tin barn. A while over (several country roads), there is a gas station, though it is here, near the belly of Kentucky, it is an Indian Grocery store (as I’ve heard it called) which I find interesting. The roads are long, and so is the draw of many of the people that live there. The trees are long too—tall, but only in clusters of the ornamental sections of properties. The rest is made up of wheat colored rows. Corn fields and big box houses with old family quilts painted on the side of their even bigger barns. Even if it is as large and nice as a mansion, it is made of wooden slats. I don’t think I saw one house made of brick. There is one school bus that seems to be everywhere, and one school that it seems everyone belongs to.

Next to the fire house is a corn field and a bigger barn and a smaller house and a large pond masquerading as a lake. In reality, it is a watering hole. For two weeks in Winter and again in the spring, there are unusual, sort of dorky, out of town guests. The Canada Geese seem to make homes everywhere, so of course they are there too. These other guests play like little boys and sing in a way that most people (I begrudge to judge) can’t sing. They are much bigger than you think they could ever be, and much funnier too. Their call is indicative of their name, somehow. The Sandhill Crane. They sing in a watery warble that to me sounds like a sandy hill with a wonderful puddle whooshing and waving at its base. Like the beach or the bay. I love them. Not by my choosing, no, they incite it. Joy and laughter as they play. When they fly, their song is a constant but when they walk it is casual and awkward. Like little boys. They play and dance even if they are not choosing a mate. They chase one another around the pond in aerial flight. Like little boys, the poke their noses around and lankily laze around the resting spot. 

Sandhill Crane ( Antigone canadensis) and Juveniles
Credit: Louis & Celine St-Arnaud 
Palm Beach, Florida

These cranes make their habitat in prairies, fields, marshes and tundra–varying by region. So it made sense that I’d find them in this corn field with an oversized puddle in the center, watering down for the evening. Many migratory birds rely greatly on deteriorating mid-land habitats like these. Being a crane, of course they like the water. During mating season, they create their nests in shallow waters using mounds of plant materials they pull up and anchor to standing plants…often the nests are floating, though sometimes they are close enough to the water that the cranes use the land to make their nests. They usually have 2 eggs which, if you’re looking, are pale, olive colored and marked with odd browns or grey.

The cranes have a sweet disposition, both the male and female work together to build the nest and rear the chick. They usually mate for life and share the grief of any lost chicks–usually only one out of two eggs survives.

I traveled to Cecelia, Kentucky about an hour away from my home on the mere mention of the cranes who can be illusive and are simply a rare migratory visitor in this part of the country. I was in a Naturalist training at Bernheim forest when I first identified with their call and watched what had to be a flock of at least 100 fly above our group, identifying trees went out the window. During migration season, the Sandhill Crane forms great flocks to travel, mate and eat together as well as rest in one another’s protection. Someone in our group mentioned that near a firehouse in Cecelia you can see them this time of year, just as long as you wait until dusk, that’s your best bet.

Enamored by the cranes, I planned to go idly.

Days later I got a bug in me to indulge in the adventure. It was about 30 degrees, a Wednesday, December 16th. I felt the cranes were likely on the tail end of the migration period through Kentucky. I had waited a little too long. There was rain that day, and not just a little, torrential down pours of rain. I took my 3 month old puppy, Georgia, hiking that morning at Bernheim. We struggled through the “Big Doggy Adventure” of a dangerous and brazen creek crossing as the water grew wild and high, jumping all around itself. I decided suddenly that we ought to go and find these cranes. It was 2pm, very cold and very rainy and I wasn’t even sure they were still in town, wherever town was…all I knew was “a fire station in Cecelia”. There even happened to be more than one fire station around Cecilia. But I knew they would be there. I knew if I went I would find them. So I did. Georgia napped in my back seat as I dodged rain drops on the highway.

I picked out my best guess at the fire station and when we arrived I let Georgia out to pee and saw nothing. I looked around at the empty gravel parking lot and the seemingly empty corn field next to it. A bust.

I turned in circles looking to see if I had missed something or if there were somewhere else we could go, even someone I could ask. The fire house looked deserted. I got set to get back in the car and maybe try the next fire house when I heard them.

Their watery dance of a song.

I turned and ran towards the fence line on the property. I had not put on a jacket and my shoes were flat and open…pools of water splashed into them as I trotted through the lawn that had become a marshland. I let go of Georgia’s leash–she was too slow. She nervously and tiredly took very tentative steps after me. I laughed and celebrated, crying out to her,

“Georgia! We did it! We found them!! Look at them! Oh, look at them.”

I snapped photo after photo with a lens not truly long enough to reach them. But I had reached them. I felt them with the cold, sharp exhilaration of the wind and air as I breathed in and the joyous spits of rain and water hit my head and feet. I felt them with their song which moved through me like that jumping creek, excited and playful–courageous at just the day. Georgia didn’t seem to quite understand why we had to run in this cold, muddy, grass-water but I could tell she felt the rush.

Sandhill Cranes in Cecelia, KY 12/16/19
Flying and playing, singing their song
Credit: H.M. Carter

I got her back in the car and drove the edge of the neighboring driveway, a private drive. I stayed at the entrance, barely closer. Here I could see the full breadth of them. Initially I had recorded just five or six cranes. Here I saw at least one-hundred.

They were much larger than I expected. Really big little boys! They were tall and awkward, but seemed oh-so sure of themselves. Ranging from 3.5-5 feet tall and 7-11 pounds, they overshadow the Great Blue Heron who I see quite frequently.

The Great Blue Heron at Bernheim we had seen that morning.
12/16/19
H.M. Carter

Eventually, time and fear of accusations of trespassing encouraged me to go home. Georgia and I celebrated with two sticks of beef jerkey and a gatorade from that so-called Indian Grocery store. I hadn’t felt that exhilarating joy in a long time. Though those cranes didn’t seem to notice or even intend to bring it to me, they did. Just by being. Being as we all should—free and playful, singing and dancing, munching and resting…enjoying life. Being with the gift.

December 16th will forever be Sandhill Crane Day in my house, a very great holiday we should all lobby to become a national celebration!

Enjoy this Slideshow of the Cranes and my day with them, the first annual Sandhill Crane Day!

To learn more about how to help the Sandhill Crane and other birds like it, visit https://www.audubon.org, https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/ or https://www.nature.org/en-us/membership-and-giving/donate-to-our-mission/become-a-member/ and other great websites like them.

If you live near by and are interested in finding the birds yourself this spring or next winter, contact me for directions and details if this story didn’t offer enough explanation and please, share your version of Sandhill Crane Day and what the experience did for you!