- Associated Press - Saturday, December 3, 2016

MEDARYVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Every fall, Pulaski and Jasper counties get thousands of new residents.

They stand about 3 1/2 feet tall, have long legs and necks, red foreheads, sharp beaks and 7-foot wingspans and like to dance.

They’re sandhill cranes that leave their northern nesting grounds every year and stop by the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area’s wetlands between October and December on their way south for the winter. The wildlife area not only provides the right environment for the birds whose populations were once threatened, but contributes toward their protection while offering a chance for onlookers to observe part of their migration.

Sweet spot

Jim Bergens, property manager at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, said the cranes require wetlands for roosting and nesting. They roost in the area’s wetlands at night, then at sunrise or shortly thereafter fly out to surrounding agricultural land to feed before returning late in the day, he continued.

There were 9,623 cranes as of Nov. 17, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources‘ website, which lists updated numbers weekly. That’s up from the 2,011 tallied Oct. 5. More than 18,000 were counted in December last year.

Bergens said Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area staff conduct counts as the birds fly out of the wetlands in the morning.

The visiting cranes’ core nesting grounds are north of the area in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, southern Canada, Illinois, Ohio and northern parts of Indiana, according to literature from the DNR. They leave their nests in late summer before arriving at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in September and October, where they roost at night in the shallow wetlands before leaving to feed in the surrounding cropland during the day.

“The cranes come here just because we happen to be in the right place at the right point in time,” Bergens said. “…If you put your finger in the middle of Wisconsin and then put your finger down in Disney World in Florida, we’re right underneath there. It just so happens that we have the wetlands here that the cranes require in migration.”

In December, the birds will depart for their wintering grounds in southern Georgia and Florida before returning north in the spring, the DNR literature continues. Cranes will stop at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in the spring as well, but in far fewer numbers.

Falling fowl

Sandhill cranes nested in Indiana until about 1929, according to the DNR. Populations dropped to less than 1,000 in the 1950s before rising up to more than 20,000 in recent years. Numbers were so low that until 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the cranes as a threatened species.

Contributing to the birds’ decline were habitat destruction and human disturbance, the literature continues.

Marshes were drained for human developments, robbing the cranes of their feeding, nesting and roosting areas. The literature goes on to describe the cranes as wary and intolerant of human disturbances, leaving them unable to adjust to the new stresses.

Their threatened status led to their protection by state and federal laws throughout the U.S.

Sandhill statistics

The DNR describes sandhill cranes as having rattling calls. Adults have blue-gray feathers with patches of bare red skin on their foreheads. Juveniles lack the red foreheads and have brown feathering under their napes before getting their adult plumage at 6 to 10 months of age.

The omnivorous birds eat berries, roots, insects, frogs, small animals and waste grains, according to the DNR literature.

Mates carry out a courtship dance to form and maintain their lifelong bond. Performed mostly in the spring, it consists of bowing low to one another before leaping into the air with wings spread while calling out in unison.

“They have lots of different behaviors, but the one that’s probably the most famous is what we call ‘the dance’ and that’s part of their courtship and pair bonding,” Bergens said.

DNR literature states sandhill cranes start nesting at 3 to 4 years old and while females produce two eggs in the early summer, often only one survives. Family units remain for 8 to 10 months before juveniles are forced out on their own as parents prepare to nest again.

Witness the wildlife

The Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, supported by the sale of hunting licenses and a federal tax for managing animals and habitats, encompasses over 8,100 acres of wetland, upland and woodland game habitat.

Also on the grounds is an observation tower for viewing the sandhill cranes. While the roosting marsh is closed to the public, visitors who sign in at the self-service check station are welcome to stand on the observation deck to the west and look out across a field for the birds coming in and out of the wetlands, which span behind a patch of woods. The birds can also be seen feeding and dancing in surrounding harvested farm fields.

The cranes’ presence in the area spans from late September through December, peaking in mid-November, according to the DNR’s website. The website adds the best time to see the birds is at sunrise and sunset as they head in and out from the wetlands for the day.

Kelly Hines, Winamac, visited the observation deck with her four young sons at sunrise Thursday morning, Nov. 17. They stood among a group of onlookers - some peering through binoculars - as clusters of cranes let out their shrill clatters overhead.

“We’re homeschooling so we thought it would be a neat educational thing for the boys to see,” Kelly said.

“There’s a test this afternoon,” the boys’ grandmother, Pam Hines, quipped.

Pam and Kelly went on to recall how the boys read facts about the birds on signposts lining the trail leading up to the observation deck days earlier before the family decided to return after reading sunrise was a better time to visit.

“We’re just amazed how God created it, that the birds know how to come here on their way south, just that we can enjoy the beauty of that,” Kelly said.

Scott and Trish Karl made the 2 1/2-hour drive from their home in Wheaton, Illinois, to see the birds early one recent morning too. They visited the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area last year as well, when they said strong winds pushed the birds directly above the observation tower.

“They were coming right over us and low,” Scott said. “They had a hard time with the wind last year, so it was amazing last year. It was cold and windy, but it was amazing.”

The couple said the experience complements their regimen of outdoor activities, which also includes backpacking in locales across the country.

“Just being in tune with nature,” Scott said of their desire to return. “They’re amazing birds.”

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Source: (Logansport) Pharos-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2gyxaam

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Information from: Pharos-Tribune, https://www.pharostribune.com

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