Fall migration of songbirds and raptors has been underway for weeks now, but recently, the Sandhill Cranes have been moving down from their arctic and subarctic breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to feed in the pastures and cultivated fields in central Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Birds that spent the summer in small family groups now gather by the hundreds to forage in farmer’s fields for the residual grain left after corn and soybean harvest, but they also feed on insects, amphibians, small rodents, seeds, berries, and aquatic vegetation in the wet meadows that permeate this area of Wisconsin.
Staff of the Crex Meadows refuge estimate that there are about 6000 Cranes here at the peak of migration — which sounds really impressive unless you compare it to the numbers of cranes that stop at the Platte River in the spring on their way north. You can read more about that migration by clicking here.
The formation of large flocks during migration helps young birds (and adults) locate food sources, but is probably more important in providing protection from predators. They gather in high density in the middle of wetlands overnight, and fly in large groups out to fields several miles away to forage, just as they did on their spring migration journey through Nebraska. Unlike their sunrise dispersal from roost sites on the Platte River though, the Cranes at Crex Meadows were a little more leisurely in their morning departures, so we managed to see lots of Cranes flying about the refuge. Just a few of the over 200 photos I took yesterday of that spectacle…