The Gathering

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes are currently staging for a few weeks in the wet meadows of wildlife refuges in central Minnesota and Wisconsin –fattening up for migration and hanging out with each other in the beautiful fall colors of October.

They are a very social bunch at this time of year, crowding together at night in the more remote places of the refuge and flying off in large groups to feed in agricultural fields in the daytime where they consume what is left from the corn, wheat, sorghum or other crop harvests.

Sandhill Cranes pair for life, and the partners stick pretty close together when they are foraging, even though they may be part of a very large group of 100 or more birds feeding in a particular area. Although it doesn’t look like it in the photo, this is a wet meadow with some bare, marshy areas that might have the insects, snails, berries, or even small mammals they are looking to eat.

After a cold, dreary few hours of driving around Crex Meadows wildlife area looking for the wildlife (and finding scarcely any), the sun suddenly appeared in the late afternoon, and the cranes began flying into a wet meadow we had just happened to stop by to take in the view. From our overlook we saw several flights of dozens of cranes come right over us to land about 1/4 mile (or more) away.

It’s so helpful that they announce their presence with their eerie-sounding rattling trumpet call long before we see them, so we can get the cameras ready!
They flew in small groups…
or very large ones, always calling as they flew over.
Gradually, over the course of about half an hour, the meadow began to fill up with Cranes.
Incoming fights of cranes circled the group in a wide arc, gradually descending with legs down, heads and neck erect, as they kind of floated down to the ground.

I assume this might be where they will spend the night, and it might be where they congregate every night, until early morning when the most restless ones among them signal that it’s time to take off again and fly out to get breakfast. Don’t you wonder which birds are those early starters who set off all the others? Is it always the same ones? Inquiring minds want to know!

8 thoughts on “The Gathering

  1. Totally agree with your “wondering.” We lived for a time near to Crex Meadows. Our first visit in the fall, after seeing more and more sandhill cranes in the surrounding fields, we totally expected to see cranes everywhere. After driving and driving I finally spotted a group of photographers all set up next to the road and enjoying wine and cheese. I knew we had to stop and see what was happening or going to happen. Sure enough, they said to “just wait.” At near sunset here they came–hundreds at a time! That sound was soon continuous as they disappeared into the long grasses. We still talk about the time we almost missed the most incredible crane sighting we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, on a trip to Alaska we were just a few weeks too late for the crane festival and now we winter in FL so their spring gatherings are not in our part of the country. However, we do have a couple of pairs here in our community that walk from yard to yard and produce offspring that we can watch grow up before we head back to MN.

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    • Hi Jodie, that’s exactly the way we felt. We stumbled on this lookout point by accident — taking a low maintenance road — and were standing around admiring the view when the cranes suddenly started to assemble. This was not the place that was suggested we wait for them further north in the refuge. It was an intense (photography-wise) half hour of excitement! Thanks for writing about your experience — I know the feeling!

  2. Very nice series of Sandhill Crane images! Loved seeing them! Usually we travel to Lake Woodruff NWR in Florida to photograph them along with other birds there. It is a very large NWR but never crowded with a lot of people getting in the way. Sometimes it is a little strange being in such a large NWR and hardly seeing anyone else!

    • Hi Reed, I believe you have a different subspecies of Sandhill Crane in Florida that is present year-round, as well as some of our Cranes that breed here in the Great Lakes region that over-winter in Florida. I envy you the opportunities to photograph the wildlife in such a sparsely visited (by humans) area. That sounds ideal for photographers like yourself. Thanks for your comment.

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