Sandhill Crane Visits Harwich Port

Sandhill crane photos by Gerry Beetham

One morning last week, Nan Poor (a Trustee of the Harwich Conservation Trust) looked out her window into her yard next to the HCT Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve’s wetlands and walking paths. She has several bird feeding stations at her home. Among the visitors, there are often mourning doves eating seed on the ground or blue jays bouncing about. This particular morning though, she saw a very unusual and striking visitor. Standing in her yard amongst the blue flag irises was a four foot tall gray bird with a long, graceful neck held upright, a red crown, and a large black bill. She went outside to get a better look.

“The bird was not shy at all and came right towards me,” Nan said about the encounter with the curious bird. Although she is quite familiar with Cold Brook’s “regular” birds as she volunteers with HCT’s songbird nest box monitoring program, Nan was puzzled by the elegant new arrival and sent along a photo to HCT staff Mike and Tyler for help with identification. They were thrilled to see that Nan had captured a beautiful photo of a sandhill crane – a very unusual sighting in Harwich!

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) are one of two crane species found in North America out of the 15 crane species worldwide. The other North American species is the rare and federally endangered Whooping Crane. Sandhill cranes are huge birds with a seven foot wingspan, favoring wide open landscapes across the continent. These tall graceful birds are omnivorous, feasting on cultivated grains, rodents, frogs, snakes, seeds, and aquatic plants.

There are up to six subspecies of sandhill cranes, but the two most common are the Greater (Southern) and the Lesser (Northern). The Lesser subspecies breeds in marshy Arctic tundra, while the Northern subspecies favors marshes and bogs from central Canada southward to Wisconsin in the east and Oregon in the west. Adult cranes mate for life. Both subspecies are highly migratory, often wintering in agricultural river valleys in the Southwest. Populations in Mississippi, Florida, and Cuba are resident year-round. The Cuban population is protected as a federally endangered subspecies.

Sandhill cranes congregate in the tens of thousands during migration, especially around the Platte River in Nebraska, where the annual Sandhill Crane Festival attracts thousands of birdwatchers. Young birds learn their migration routes from adult birds in the flock, a behavior unique to cranes. 10 million year old crane fossils have even been found in Nebraska, making the sandhill crane one of the oldest extant bird species in the world.

Mike O’Connor of the Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans offered his views on the sandhill crane.

“They have been pushing east in recent years. There are annual Cape sightings now, when there used to be none. A few pairs have nested in the western part of the state, as well as a handful of other locations in New England. Most of them can be found around Fryeburg, Maine, where at least a dozen pairs nested last year. The Cape is likely to see more of these cranes in the coming years during migration, but it isn’t likely we’ll have any breeding pairs, since we don’t offer their preferred habitat.”

He added with his usual wry sense of humor, “Although, you might get one in your yard if you buy a sandhill crane feeder from the Bird Watcher’s General Store, in Orleans.”

Though their breeding range is expanding, sandhill cranes are imperiled by habitat destruction (specifically fossil fuel extraction activities) and water pollution. Their dependence upon several key stopover sites makes them vulnerable to future climatic shifts.

Nan’s bird, as it turns out, may be the same bird captured in South Chatham by the wildlife rehabilitators of Wild Care in late May. The bird had a wound on its neck and was underweight, so the decision was made to take it under Wild Care’s wing as it were.

“Wild Care has never rehabilitated a crane at our facility in 26 years! I consulted with sandhill crane experts throughout the U.S. to ensure we were providing the best nutrition, enrichment, and aviary setup. The bird ultimately required a neck surgery and was transported to the Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center for surgery and post-op recovery. Wild Care and the Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center collectively decided that it would be too stressful to transport the bird to another state or to another distant location, where it would be with other cranes. We opted to release the bird on-site in a suitable habitat. Local reports and photos tell us that the crane is doing quite well. We do hope it will eventually meet up with other cranes and that they will be on their way. What an honor to work with such a spectacular and long-legged bird!” said Stephanie Ellis, Wild Care Executive Director.

A video of the crane’s release can be watched on Wild Care’s Facebook page:

Though we truly hope that the bird finds a sedge soon (a group of cranes), we would not be upset if he or she decides to return to Harwich Port again someday to have a snack.

Story by Tyler Maikath, HCT Outreach & Stewardship Coordinator.
Photos by HCT volunteer photographer Gerry Beetham.