Sand­hill crane mi­gra­tion marks fall in Ge­or­gia

Species of bird is one of world’s most com­mon cranes

The Covington News - - AGRICULTURE & OUTDOORS -

SO­CIAL CIR­CLE — It might seem hard not to no­tice greater sand­hill cranes as they mi­grate through Ge­or­gia. Adults stand more than four feet tall, sport a nearly seven-foot wing­span and emit a loud, rat­tling trum­pet call laced in bass.

But th­ese big, gray birds of­ten fly at al­most out-of-sight al­ti­tudes dur­ing the day and when heard or seen are oc­ca­sion­ally mis­taken as Canada geese by peo­ple not familiar with them.

For oth­ers, how­ever, the fall mi­gra­tion to south­ern Ge­or­gia and Florida is a sea­sonal land­mark, with flights peak­ing in this state at about Thanks­giv­ing and some­times in­volv­ing hun­dreds of sand­hill cranes a day. Large flocks cir­cle high into the sky as they ride ther­mal air cur­rents, con­stantly cack­ling back and forth.

Then they as­sem­ble into for­ma­tion and be­gin long, straight glides be­fore catch­ing the next ther­mal sev­eral miles closer to their des­ti­na­tion. When con­di­tions are less fa­vor­able for soar­ing, in­clud­ing some­times at night, they flap along in for­ma­tion at lower al­ti­tudes. Usu­ally they roost for the night in an open pond or wet­land.

“It is re­ally a spec­ta­cle if you learn to ap­pre­ci­ate it,” said Jim Ozier, a se­nior wildlife bi­ol­o­gist and pro­gram man­ager with the Ge­or­gia Wildlife Re­sources Di­vi­sion’s Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion. “It’s the only re­ally large bird we have that passes through in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers dur­ing mi­gra­tion, but is typ­i­cally not present here at other times of the year.”

Sand­hill cranes are one of the most com­mon cranes in the world. Greater sand­hill cranes, the largest sub­species, breed in the north­ern U.S., Canada and even east­ern Siberia, and win­ter in the south­ern U.S. and in Mex- ico, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Crane Foun­da­tion. Ge­or­gia havens in­clude the Oke­feno­kee Na­tional Wildlife Refuge near the Florida line, where win­ter­ing greater sand­hill cranes mix with res­i­dent Florida sand­hill cranes, and Panola Moun­tain State Park in Rock­dale, Henry and Dekalb coun­ties, which pro­vides valu­able stopover habi­tat for mi­grat­ing cranes.

The loss of wet­lands and river­ine ecosys­tems is a sig­nif­i­cant threat to the birds, which fa­vor open, fresh-wa­ter wet­lands but, de­pend­ing on the sub­species, can range from pine up­lands to plowed fields.

Sand­hill cranes are pro­tected in Ge­or­gia, but it is likely that na­tive Amer­i­cans and early set­tlers oc­ca­sion­ally en­joyed a meal of them. The species’ mi­gra­tion cov­ers much of the state, in­clud­ing pop­u­la­tion cen­ters such as metro At­lanta.

Keys to spot­ting cranes are sim­ple: Keep an eye on the sky — sand­hills travel in v-flocks like geese — and lis­ten. “Once you’ve heard that sound, you’ll al­ways no­tice it,” Ozier said.

The Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion works to pro­tect and en­hance pop­u­la­tions of nongame species such as sand­hill cranes. Buy­ing a bald ea­gle or hum­ming­bird li­cense plate, avail­able for a one-time $25 fee on­line and at county tag of­fices, or mak­ing a do­na­tion through the State In­come Tax Check­off pro­vide vi­tal fund­ing for those ef­forts.

Check on­line at www.geor­giaw­ to learn more about Wildlife Re­source’s Nongame Con­ser­va­tion Sec­tion and the State Wildlife Ac­tion Plan, a con­ser­va­tion blue­print for Ge­or­gia’s di­verse wildlife and nat­u­ral habi­tats.

At a glance

A closer look at greater sand­hill cranes, one of six sub­species of sand­hill cranes.

• Ap­pear­ance: 3-5 feet tall, long neck, legs. Gray body; red head. Wing­span 5-7 feet.

• Calls: Lis­ten at www.sav­­hill. cfm

• Range: North Amer­ica, Cuba and parts of Siberia to Mex­ico.

• Habi­tat: Fresh­wa­ter wet­lands, grass­lands, mead­ows and fields.

• Trend: Pop­u­la­tion stable to in­creas­ing.

• Cousins: Other sub­species in­clude the lesser sand­hill, Florida sand­hill, Cana­dian sand­hill, Mis­sis­sippi sand­hill and Cuban sand­hill.

• Fam­ily time: Mated pairs of greater sand­hills live to­gether year-round and mi­grate with their off­spring.

• Pathfind­ers: Op­er­a­tion Mi­gra­tion, the ul­tra­light-led mi­gra­tion project help­ing reestab­lish en­dan­gered whoop­ing cranes, used sand­hills as test birds in 2000.

• On­line: In­ter­na­tional Crane Foun­da­tion, www.sav­ingcranes. org/species/sand­hill.cfm; North Amer­i­can Crane Work­ing Group,

Sources: In­ter­na­tional Crane Foun­da­tion, Cornell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy

Whoop­ing cranes

On a re­lated note, 17 young whoop­ing cranes are on their way to and through Ge­or­gia. Ul­tra­light air­craft are lead­ing the 1,250-mile Op­er­a­tion Mi­gra­tion flight from cen­tral Wis­con­sin to win­ter­ing grounds on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The high­pro­file project headed by the pub­lic-private Whoop­ing Crane East­ern Part­ner­ship is aimed at re-es­tab­lish­ing this “se­verely” en­dan­gered species in east­ern North Amer­ica.

As of Mon­day, day 38 of the mi­gra­tion, the cranes and crews had made it to Jack­son County, In­di­ana, in the south­ern part of the state. Check for up­dates at www.op­er­a­tion­mi­gra­ (click “In the Field”).

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