I never thought I would see sandhill cranes less than 20 miles from my home in central Pennsylvania. Yet there I was last January, sitting in our car with my husband Bruce, watching five sandhill cranes through our scope as they foraged in a small wetland near State College.
When the word went out on January 4 that Alyssia Church had discovered the cranes at Fairbrook Marsh and on nearby farm fields, I was surprised. At first I didn’t bother to check them out, because I am not what is known in birder parlance as a “chaser.”
Then our son Steve called to tell me that he had seen them on the farm field, so the next time we headed for State College, we took an alternate route and located the cranes where Steve had described. But because they were several hundred feet from the country road where we were parked, and we had not brought our scope, we didn’t get a good view of them.
We decided to try again and on a cold, clear January 23, this time armed with our scope, we scanned the field. There was no sign of them. I was not deterred, though, and Bruce drove slowly along the road for a mile or so toward the marsh while I kept a careful watch out the window. Finally, I spotted large gray blobs that looked like rocks out in the marsh behind a clump of beige grasses.
“There they are,” I said as I peered closer through my binoculars.
We parked in a church parking lot that overlooked the marsh and set up our scope. One head popped up, followed by a second. One of them preened its feathers. Then the pair spread and flapped their wings, a signal for all five to stand up and walk together on their long, elegant legs. At five feet tall they stood out against the marsh grasses, like gray ghosts, as the water in the wetland steamed in the cold. Next they moved to another spot where they were in the open, giving us an excellent view of them.
Repeatedly, they poked their long, pointed bills into the ice-covered marsh in search of food, most likely worms, insects, and even mice. As they foraged, a crane remained on alert and stood on one leg. The five moved together like a team or a single organism. All were clothed in gray feathers with beige highlights and seemed oblivious to the seven degrees temperature as well as to the busy rural roads on three sides of the marsh. Even more surprising was the housing development complete with road, backyards, and a man walking a leashed dog above the marsh and cranes.
We watched the cranes for nearly an hour, moving nearer beside the rural road overlooking the marsh and setting up our scope. But the cranes remained unperturbed as they fed, preened, and occasionally sat back down on the frozen ground.
Later, I learned that sandhill cranes during the winter spend most of their time in so-called maintenance activities—foraging, moving, resting and comfort and that their comfort activities are preening, head rubbing and scratching, and body shaking, although preening is their most common comfort activity. They use an alert investigative posture when inquisitive about something nearby. Adult pairs or family units are especially alert. Since family units stay together from hatch time in summer until the following spring, the five cranes at Fairbrook Marsh appeared to be a mated pair, two offspring, and a second adult.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the eastern greater sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis tabida), one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes, had finally arrived in our area of central Pennsylvania. After all, they had been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania, where a pair first appeared in spring and summer of 1991 in Plain Grove Township, Lawrence County, for two decades. A second pair, or perhaps the same pair, reappeared in northeastern Lawrence and southeastern Mercer counties again in the breeding season in 1992.
The following winter, on January 3, a flock of 25-30 sandhill cranes fed for half an hour on corn in a partially harvested field in Plain Grove Township. This marked the first time a large flock of sandhill cranes had been seen in Pennsylvania. Since then, they’ve been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania and, as the flock has increased over the years, in eastern Pennsylvania especially Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Today they have been spotted in 30 counties at all times of the year and breed not only in northwestern Pennsylvania, but in northeastern Sullivan and Bradford counties. Ironically, according to Doug Gross, Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor for the Game Commission, they have bred in “Crane Swamp” not far from Sullivan County’s breeding area near Dushore. The swamp, though, was named for great blue herons, which are called “blue cranes” by many rural Pennsylvania folks.
The first evidence of breeding sandhill cranes in the Commonwealth was documented on August 4, 1993 when Nancy W. Rodgers and Lois Cooper found the first young crane with its parents off Plain Grove Road in a pasture near large old trees.
“We could see the red on the heads of the two adults and the third one had a rust-colored head with light area above and below the eye. They were feeding as they walked south,” Rodgers wrote in Pennsylvania Birds.
The following day Rodgers discovered them a mile southeast of the first pasture in a field with a stream. She watched as “one adult caught a small animal and slowly killed it by beating it on the ground and stabbing it with its bill. When the animal finally died and lay on the grass, the second adult ate it.”
In all likelihood, the pair with their young had emerged from a nearby wetland where they had built a large nest of surrounding vegetation, which they had collected and tossed over their shoulders to form a mound above standing water, back in April. In it the female had laid two large, light olive-colored eggs speckled with darker brown. Both sexes had shared incubation duties over a 30 day period.
Even though the young can leave the nest eight hours after hatching, usually they wait 24 hours for the first hatched or continue to wait until the second one hatches before moving. Still, they stay well-hidden within a wetland until the young are 90 days old. If the food supply is abundant, two young survive. If not, only one chick does. Both parents care for and feed their offspring.
Rodgers had calculated that the pair, if they had young, would be emerging from the wetland in early August, and she was right. Over the following years, despite searching, it took until 2009, when Bonnie Dersham, while surveying for Massasauga rattlesnakes on SGL #294 in Mercer County, found a recently hatched crane chick and unhatched egg on a nest on May 5, according to Gene Wilhelm’s account in the definitive Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. That same year, in the Pymatuning region, Land Management Group Supervisor Jerry Bish and Northwest Region Land Management Supervisor Jim Donatelli discovered a nest with two two-day-old crane chicks.
With so many bird species declining, the spread of the eastern greater sandhill cranes, which originally bred in nests in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Ontario, to as far east as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York state, has been a pleasant surprise, especially since all other crane species, worldwide, are in decline and sometimes number very few birds including our whooping crane.
Doug Gross and other ornithologists attribute their great expansion to more understanding of the importance of wetlands as well as the cranes’ ability to feed on waste grains and whatever small prey is available in their nesting and wintering areas. Most eastern greater sandhill cranes still migrate south in the winter to southern Georgia and central Florida, but, as our wintering cranes have shown, even temperatures far below zero, as we experienced last January, do not faze them. Their sharp beaks repeatedly broke through the ice and their feathers insulated them from the frozen ground they sat and walked on it. This particular little flock left Fairbrook Marsh at the end of January perhaps for warmer climes.
Decades ago Bruce and I had traveled both to Willcox, Arizona and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to watch thousands of wintering sandhill cranes, knowing we would never see this species in Pennsylvania. How wrong we were!