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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

A Sandhill Crane Migration

March 5th, 2013 · 5 Comments

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Sandhill Cranes have probably flown through the San Luis Valley for 10 million years. I drove there at the end of February to watch them for three days.

These large and graceful birds belong to the oldest known surviving bird species. “A crane fossil found in Nebraska, estimated to be about 10 million years old, is identical in structure to the modern Sandhill Crane,” according to The Nature Conservancy.

The Sandhill Cranes gather around the National Wildlife Refuge near Monte Vista, Colorado. This refuge is close to the southern end of the San Luis Valley, the largest alpine valley in the world. About 7,600 feet high, the refuge sits between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges. This is the western edge of the Central Flyway where about 25,000 Sandhill Cranes migrate every spring and fall. They spend their winters in southern New Mexico, including the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which I visited and wrote about in December 2011. Near the end of March they begin to fly to the area around Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, where they breed and make their nests.

Among the approximately 25,000 Sandhill Cranes that come to the San Luis Valley each spring and fall are some Lesser and Canadian Sandhill Cranes, about 3,000 to 5,000 of each species. Differentiating between the three sub-species is difficult, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages our wildlife refuges. “The Greater is larger and lighter gray than the Lesser and Canadian. The Greater Sandhill has a head/bill shaped similar to a Canvasback while the Lesser Sandhill has a head/bill similar to a Redhead duck.”

Greater Sandhill Cranes can be as big as 5 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 6 feet. As big as they are they are among our most graceful birds. On the other hand, the huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska consist largely of the smaller Lesser Sandhill Cranes.

During my three-day trip I went to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge six times. The three mornings were better, not only because of the light but because the cranes were more active then. But while I had to get up early, this was an easy trip because the cranes were present and the light was good for less than an hour at the beginning and end of each day. Still, the mornings were cold, down as low as 11°F. I made sure to get there and to get my gear set up before sunrise, as in this photograph:

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) Awaken into a Cold Dawn

Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) Awaken into a Cold Dawn

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I like to know why birds have the scientific names they do, and Paul A. Johnsgard has a nice explanation. “The Romans referred to the cranes as grues, apparently from the sound of their calls,” he writes. “The related Latin word congruere, meaning to agree, is the basis for the modern English word, ‘congruence,’ and both derive from the highly coordinated and cooperative behavior typical of cranes.” He wrote this in one of his many books, Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes.”

I liked the title of that book so much that I borrowed it for a short video that I made so you could hear what crane music actually sounds like. Especially when Sandhill Cranes gather in large flocks as they do in the San Luis Valley, they continually call out to their family members to keep in touch with them. Please watch my three-minute film, “Crane Music” below.

The best place that I found to watch the Sandhill Cranes was about one-fourth of the way around the auto tour route in the refuge. There in and along some rare open water I found a lot of them. They were close, but didn’t pay any attention to me when I got out of my SUV and set up my camera and tripod.

Sandhill Cranes Wake Up Near Open Water in the Refuge

Sandhill Cranes Wake Up Near Open Water in the Refuge

Click on the picture above to enlarge
A Closeup of Three Sandhill Cranes Before They Flew off to Feed

A Closeup of Three Sandhill Cranes Before They Flew off to Feed

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I love the calls of the cranes. But their most exciting behavior is their dancing. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, unlike many other species of birds and some so-called “higher species,” including many humans. On spring mornings they form pair bonds by dancing with a mate. This courtship behavior includes flapping their wings and leaping into the air.

Two Sandhill Cranes Court

Two Sandhill Cranes Court

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In the afternoons at the refuge I could watch the Sandhill Cranes fly. Many were going to wherever they went to sleep that night. But some of these were recent arrivals from New Mexico and some were headed to Idaho, believing that winter was almost gone.

Three Sandhill Cranes Fly One Afternoon

Three Sandhill Cranes Fly One Afternoon

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Later One Afternoon Three Other Sandhill Cranes Fly High

Later One Afternoon Three Other Sandhill Cranes Fly High

Click on the picture above to enlarge

This is the view of a small part of the San Luis Valley east to the Sierra Blanca Massif at the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The highest mountain in view is Blanca Peak, 14,345 feet.

For years I have loved the San Luis Valley for its austere beauty. Now that I have seen Sandhill Cranes there, I love it even more.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Gretchen // Mar 7, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    That sunrise was almost worth getting up early to see. Even nicer when someone else does the getting up earlier but I get to see the photo.

    It was gorgeous!

  • 2 Dan Karkoulas // Apr 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Great pictures, definatly worth getting up for. That is the point isn’t it? Getting up and out. How much telephoto is generally used for shots like these?

  • 3 David Mendosa // Apr 2, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Dear Alex,

    Thank you. And you are so right about the point. I use Canon’s 100-400mm lens, generally at 400mm, for most of my photos and for all of my bird and other wildlife shots.

    Namaste,

    David

  • 4 S.K. // May 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Gorgeous photos! Seeing a Sandhill migration has been on my ‘must do’ list since I was 7 years old and read ‘Sandy the Sandhill Crane’ by Dayton O. Hyde. I was almost set on Nebraska but am reconsidering now after reading about your experience at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. I just happened to see the Sandhill article after reading your recipe for Chana Dal and I’m so very glad I did.

  • 5 David Mendosa // May 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Dear S.K.,

    You are way ahead of me! I didn’t read Sandy until I was 70 years older than when you read it. But it’s a great book at any age.

    Namaste,

    David

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