Fueling up for the journey south

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.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Thousands of Cranes stopover at Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, Wisconsin in late September-October each year.

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.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Modern harvesting methods don’t leave much seed on the ground, but apparently there is enough there to allow the birds to fatten up for the next stage of migration south to Texas and Mexico.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

It’s hard to believe they can find anything nutritious in some of the fields that look like mowed lawns.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Young birds (like the one on the left) lack the brilliant red forehead of the adults. A fall molt of feathers has replaced the worn, brown-tinged plumage of the summer breeding birds to their normal gray and white color.

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…

Sandhill Cranes - Crex Meadows, Wisconsin

It looks like take-offs can be quite congested with one bird’s head buried in another bird’s rear. Somehow they keep their wings separated though.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes - Crex Meadows, Wisconsin

With their relatively light body weight (8-10 pounds) and large wing area, these birds are powerful flyers and gain altitude and speed very quickly after take-off.

Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing.

Coming in for landings, they sort of float down to the ground, and then beat those huge, long wings backward to stop their forward motion.


They will be back next spring, when we can again enjoy the rattling calls of Cranes flying overhead on their way to Canada.

5 thoughts on “Fueling up for the journey south

  1. Sandhill Cranes are one of those birds that I’ve always wanted to see and your wonderful photos, Sue, reinforce that desire. Your in-flight shots are remarkable and I love the “floating” shot. Your final shot really highlights the distinctive red forehead. I’m looking forward to seeing the migrating birds here, but they are more likely to be ducks rather than cranes.

    • Thanks, Mike. I do love watching and listening to these spectacular big birds. We were too far away to get good close-ups of birds in flight, but it was fun practicing with the tracking focus. The Cranes are such relative light-weights they seem to float up off the ground so easily as they jump and prance.

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