It’s that time of year when a certain bird tends to dominate the conversation.
Yup, sandhill crane migration it is reaching its peak.
Flocks — sometimes in the hundreds — have been seen and heard hoarsely passing over the Chicago region in recent days as they make their annual journey from their northern breeding grounds to their winter home in Florida.
For those who have wondered if there are more birds this year than ever before, the answer seems to be yes.
Tuesday’s tally at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana — a key pit stop for birds — totaled 31,975 sandhill cranes. That number surpasses a 2021 high point of 28,652 and comes close to the record of 34,629 counted at the end of November 2002.
Just a week ago, just 7,000 birds were in Jasper-Pulaski, where swampy wetlands provide habitat for cranes to rest and replenish. Nearly the entire eastern sandhill crane population depends on Jasper-Pulaski, which has been designated a Bird Area of Global Importance by the National Audubon Society.
The wildlife area is located near Knox, Indiana, about an hour and a half southeast of Chicago. To watch this mass gathering of cranes, which has been compared to a bird feast, there is an observation deck in Jasper-Pulaski.
The best times of day to catch cranes are sunrise and sunset, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
At dawn, huge flocks rise from nearby roosting marshes (closed to the public) to feed in the surrounding fields and often stop in the open grassland areas of the refuge.
Alternatively, about an hour before sunset, the cranes fly into the shelter near the viewing area from all directions, where these super-social birds gather and meet before returning to their marsh roosting at sunset.
One of two crane species that live in North America – whooping cranes being the other – sandhill cranes have existed in their present form for more than 2.5 million years. But by the mid-1930s, the Midwestern bird’s subspecies’ population had been reduced to just two dozen breeding pairs, due to habitat loss and overhunting.
The restoration of the wetlands has helped bring the population back from the brink, into one of the storage the great victories of the movement.
Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [email protected]