While Padre Island National Seashore doesn’t overflow with college students in spring as does its neighbor, South Padre Island, the national seashore nevertheless is a popular gathering spot for awkward-looking visitors. From November to early spring, the seashore becomes a temporary home to sandhill cranes.
Sandhill cranes are large, gray cranes. They grow upwards of 3-4 feet tall with a wingspan over 6 feet or more. Both the legs and the neck are long and thin. The most noticeable markings on a sandhill crane occur on the head. The forehead is bright red and the cheeks are white.
Although sandhill cranes are mostly gray, they can sometimes have a reddish-brown or rust tint. The reason for the tint in their feathers is that sandhill cranes like to play in the mud. They preen themselves and rub mud on their feathers. The feathers can turn brown, or in iron-rich mud, they can be red.
The Dance of the Cranes
Sandhill cranes are one of the most interesting birds to watch. No matter what time of year you see them, you might catch a crane dancing. Sandhill cranes perform intricate dances to attract mates, strengthen pair bonds and to develop skills while young. A sandhill crane dance might include these steps: bowing to the partner, wing flapping, spinning around, jumping in the air and then throwing a stick high up in the air. These dances can be a sight to watch!
Pairs of sandhill cranes will also sing together to establish a bond. They make a loud, rattling “kar-r-r-o-o-o” call in unison. Often you’ll hear them long before you spot them, as this call carries easily and far through the air, and the birds’ coloring can at times make them hard to spot against the dusky background.
A Year in the Life
Migratory sandhill cranes spend winters along the Gulf Coast, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Mexico. They feed and preen themselves in wetlands and wet grasslands. In the early spring, groups of cranes will take off on their long migration to their summer breeding grounds.
Sandhill cranes do not make long non-stop flights like other birds. Instead, they make rest stops to eat and, possibly, attract a mate. The most famous rest stop of any bird happens in early spring in Nebraska. Over 500,000 sandhill cranes take a one month breather here on the Platte River basin. From late February to early April, cranes cover almost every sand dune and stretch of shallow water. The sight of so many birds can be breathtaking, especially when they all take off at once.
By late April and May, the sandhill cranes will reach their final destination. For some it could be Yellowstone National Park, for others Grand Teton National Park. Still others head to Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, while others breed in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and parts of Canada.
Sandhill cranes are the romantics of the bird world. They mate for life and they will stay together until one of the pair dies. Even after they pair up, the mates will still continue to dance for each other outside of the breeding season.
After sandhill cranes mate, they build a ground nest out of available plants and grasses. Both parents are involved with the nest and raising the young, with the males guarding the nest. The nest usually has two eggs. After about a month, the eggs hatch and it will be at least another two months before the newly hatched young -- dubbed “colts” -- take their first flight. In the fall, the young migrate with their parents back south to the wintering grounds. It could be two years or more until the young have their chance to mate.
Successes and Dangers
Sandhill cranes are the most populous crane species on Earth. While other crane species, such as the whooping crane, are critically endangered, the sandhill crane as a whole has managed to stay strong and even spread into new areas.
But not everything is perfect for the sandhill crane. The greatest threats facing sandhill cranes are wetland loss and the extinction of subpopulations. Sandhill cranes depend on wetlands, floodplains, wet grasslands and bogs for their survival. They need all of these different kinds of wetlands during their migration. Development is continuously encroaching on valuable feeding and breeding wetland and grassland habitats.
The effects of wetland loss are already too familiar to the Mississippi and Cuban sandhill cranes. These two subpopulations of sandhill crane are critically endangered with populations in the low hundreds. Their habitat was destroyed by development and the filling of wetlands. Although both subpopulations are protected by the Endangered Species Act, there has been very little change in their health. If they go extinct, vital genetic diversity would be lost that could prove useful in the long-term health of the entire species.
Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore is one of several places along the Gulf of Mexico that provides grasslands and temporary wetlands perfect for the wintering cranes. Birdwatchers visiting Padre Island will get several chances to observe the cranes along with northern harriers, roseate spoonbills, sparrows and waterfowl. Make sure to visit the cranes before spring or you will miss them on their journey to Nebraska!
Jessica Jones is Senior Coordinator of Citizen Science Programs for the National Wildlife Federation. She oversees Wildlife Watch, an education program that allows the public to report wildlife and natural phenomena sightings online. Visit www.nwf.org/watch or contact her at [email protected].