Sandhill crane season at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area -- no exaggeration

The biannual sandhill crane migrations through Indiana attract a variety of superlative descriptors from those who pay attention.

Majestic and surreal are how The IndyChannel described flocks of these long-legged, knock-kneed waterbirds at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in October – “like a scene from a from a wildlife documentary.” Prehistoric appears three times in a piece on the 2011 spring transplantation in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

The DNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, which is charged with managing Jasper-Pulaski’s 8,142 acres, says the fall and spring sandhill passages are among “Indiana’s greatest wildlife spectacles.” The National Audubon Society says: “Virtually the entire eastern population of this subspecies stages at this site during fall migration.”

None are overstatements.

Natural Bloomington YouTube video: Sandhill Crane Season at Jasper-Pulaski

First, there are the heron-esque birds themselves – a Species of Special Concern in Indiana. The wingspans they glide upon during seemless approaches to the Goose Pasture beneath the Jasper-Pulaski observation tower reach seven feet in breadth. The cardinal red patches atop their heads top out at nearly four feet, between 31 and 47 inches.

These gangly-yet-graceful, monogamous, silver-blue creatures emit raucous, trilling, guttural calls – “strangely prehistoric,” the Times says – as they take off, land and socialize. And, the paper adds, they have “prehistoric roots, since almost identical fossils of the sandhill crane have been traced back about 10 million years.”

And there are those magnificent, twice-a-year migrations. The Indiana birds, which Jasper-Pulaski Property Manager Jim Bergens says are a subset of the eastern population of the greater sandhill crane, summer in Central Wisconsin and points north. In early fall, they begin flying south to winter in Eastern Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida. In January, they reverse the flight back to the melting north.

During each season’s journey, sandhills by the thousands roost in the marshes and ag fields on and around Jasper-Pulaski, which lies on U.S. 421 roughly midway between Michigan City and Lafayette.

They gather at sunrise and sunset in and around the Goose Pasture tower just west of Bergens’ office to socialize – which includes a graceful, feathery, bounding dance. During the day, they disperse to the surrounding farmlands and lowlands, where they feast upon the abundant grain, bugs, grubs, seeds, tubers, berries, worms, mice, snakes, lizards, frogs and crayfish.

An estimated 5,000 had already arrived at Jasper-Pulaski on a near-perfect, early November day, as Bergens slowly rolled a state truck along county roads south of the tower. The birds’ numbers, which he says during the late morning sandhill tour have declined some in recent decades, will peak in the 10,000 range in late November and early December.

Pointing north and a little west to the plume from the nearby coal-fired, R.M. Schahfer electric power plant, he says many birds these days gather in similar landscapes around that NIPSCO facility.

During an afternoon solo drive, the field birds were familiar, but not comfortable, with vehicles and their curious humans. Any approach spawned an instantaneous and rapid retreat, leaving tails as the only photographic fodder.

Back at the Goose Pasture tower, a contingent of hundred or so remained all afternoon on the soggy field, whose bounty they shared with a white-tail deer and coyote. More accustomed to being observed, some progressed in small groups along the deck’s front edge to drink at a small puddle maybe 5o feet from the fence.

Jasper-Pulaski, named for two of the three counties the reserve straddles, is indeed known worldwide for the cranes and other birdlife. It forms the core of a 30,000-acre Important Bird Area (IBA) designated by the National Audubon Society. More than 135 species inhabit the area.

But sheltered within its wetland, upland and woodland habitats are two Dedicated State Nature Preserves. And it borders two others owned by The Nature Conservancy.

More than 30 rare, threatened or endangered plants in Indiana are among the 260-plus species identified at the Tefft Savanna Nature Preserve, which supports unique plants that are more likely found on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The 628-acre Coastal Plain Ponds Nature Preserve protects shallow, ephemerally wet basins and supports nearly two dozen unusual plants, many of whose primary distribution is along the Atlantic Coastal Plain and Gulf Coastal Plain.

Finally, as Bergens and experience agree, the Jasper-Pulaski migrations, spectacular though they may be, are but one piece of the contemporary sandhill crane experience in Indiana.

Indeed, over the past few years, sandhills – which often travel with the federally endangered whooping crane, North America's tallest bird – have progressed from stopping over in the Ewiing Bottoms and other White River floodplains near the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County to wintering by the thousands there. Ditto the Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area in Greene County.

Majestic. Surreal. A spectacle.

No exaggeration.

Photographs: Sandhill cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area


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