Last week’s “What Is It!” did not occur at the Ames Free Library. This handsome trio needs more elbow room than Queset Garden offers.
Then again, the locale wasn’t the Serengeti, the Great Plains, or some other distant land. These impressive birds were grazing at a hayfield along my daily commute. I had just enough time to pull over, take a few shots, and hurry to my next shift.
Remove the birds from the photo, and a familiar southeastern Massachusetts landscape remains: a mowed field in the foreground; milkweed, goldenrod, reeds and other tall herbaceous plants behind; with a mix of white pines and deciduous trees in the background.
Let’s take a closer look. This is a tall, long-legged species with a thin neck and long beak. Its plumage is gray and tan. Two of the three birds had colorful head markings: a contrasting red cap and white cheek. They were adults. Males and females of this species look alike. The plain gray head of the third specimen indicates that it was immature.
Notice the way the tail feathers curl under. Some people compare this to a “bustle,” a 19th century fashion accessory that added fullness to the rear of a dress.
These were solid birds who stood about four feet high. They were not difficult to see, nor did they make any effort to camouflage themselves. The family was out for lunch, taking a few steps, then bending to glean for food from the surface or to probe the soil below.
Watch the pattern of their movement and feeding in this brief video. My apologies for the passing cars: it was safer to film from my car “blind” than to exit and risk disrupting the birds.
Readers proposed two identities for this sighting: great blue heron and sandhill crane. Although herons are far more likely to be seen in our area, the latter is correct.
Many times throughout the years, I have patiently corrected students who misidentified long-legged birds as “cranes”: “actually, that bird is a heron. Cranes don’t live in Massachusetts.” And, for a long time, they didn’t. Despite very early sightings, the sandhill crane is believed to have been extirpated from Massachusetts by the late seventeenth century [Breeding Bird Atlas 2]. For years, birders have observed migrants in the southeastern part of the state. Then breeding was confirmed in western Massachusetts and, more recently, in Worcester County. This does not mean that “my” birds raised their chick here, but the possibility of breeding cranes is exciting.
Let’s take a moment to compare the two species
|Great Blue Heron||Sandhill Crane|
Both species are tall, long-legged gray birds. Unlike the crane, the heron has black feathers on its head and a yellow bill. The heron is also a lighter bird, weighing far less than a crane of the same height. Its overall appearance is more sinuous. Even its tail tapers to a point rather than the crane’s curved bustle.
In flight, the great blue heron tucks its neck into an “S” curve, whereas the crane stretches its neck forward.
|Great Blue Heron in Flight||
Mark Nenadov, CC BY 2.0
Habitat & Feeding
Both birds utilize open areas and marshes.The great blue may be found in a variety of freshwater and marine environments, while the crane spends more time in grasslands. It’s easy to tell the species apart if you can watch them feed. The heron will stand motionless or move slowly as it stalks its prey, usually fish. When the moment is right, it grabs or impales its meal with a rapid strike. As our short video demonstrates, the cranes forage by walking and picking their food from the ground. These omnivores eat a range of seeds, including cultivated grains, as well as insects and small animals. Lastly, it should be noted that the great blue heron is a solitary hunter, whereas the sandhill crane forages in flocks. The Sibley Guide to Birds characterizes sandhill cranes as “gregarious, noisy, and conspicuous.”
Nesting & Family Life
There are several differences between these species which cannot be discerned from my photos. One contrast is the way these birds utilize wetlands for nesting. Great blue herons nest in groups, often in trees killed by beaver activity.
Great Blue Heron with Stick Nest
Strong limbs support the birds’ stick platforms while the water below helps deter hungry predators.
Heron Colony at Beaver Pond
In contrast, the sandhill crane creates a mound of plant material “among marsh vegetation in shallow water” or “sometimes on dry ground close to water.” See audubon.org for more details.
Neal Herbert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
How the young of these two species develop and are cared for marks another dissimilarity. Great blue herons lay from 3 to 5 eggs. Their chicks remain nest-bound for two to three months while the parents feed them. Sandhill cranes lay only two eggs, from which one chick typically survives. Although their chicks can leave the nest “within a day after hatching,” they remain with the parents for an extended period of time. In a “Sandhill Crane Viewing” guide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes the bird’s family structure as follows: “In the fall, crane family groups – two adults and one juvenile – leave the breeding ground. The juvenile stays with the parents through the summer, fall, and winter and will accompany the parents on the northward migration.” This pattern of childrearing is what led me to surmise that our three birds were a family unit.
Perhaps the most distinctive behavior of sandhill cranes, the one we see on videos, is their exuberant courtship dance wherein the birds bow, spread their wings, and leap into the air. To witness this behavior, one must be in the right place at the right time.
I’ve been slowly – very s-l-o-w-l-y – developing a relationship with sandhill cranes. I first met them as a college student when I worked in a bird zoo. At the time, I was more impressed by their larger Asian cousins, the sarus cranes. In a cage, the sandhills were neither majestic nor friendly. Then, in 2008, I traveled through Nebraka’s Sandhills – in September, not during early spring when “more than a half million” cranes gather along the Platte River. In 2014 I visited the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in southern Colorado, another major stopover, but once again my vacation failed to coincide with the birds’ schedule. After years of close-but-not-quite-rewarding encounters, the cranes came to me! And, they were perfect.
All About Birds: “Sandhill Crane”
National Audubon: “Sandhill Crane”