Seeing a sandhill crane in Highland County is supposed to be a rare occurrence. But in 2015 several of them spent a few days near a home off Mad River Road and for the past two or three years, including last week, a flock of them were hanging out near Dennis and Dixie Overstake’s home on Franklin Road in New Market Township.
“They’re a state threatened species, so they’re still fairly rare,” said Bruce Terrill, an assistant wildlife management supervisor with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “Usually when we see them here it’s during migration, but we have some that will overwinter in the state. This time of year it’s hard to say if they’ve overwintered or are moving back north.
Sandhill cranes are wading birds characterized by long legs, necks and bills. They range between 34 and 38 inches in height and have a six- to to seven-foot wingspan. Their main identifying characteristic is a crimson spot on top of their head, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Sandhill cranes generally winter in warmer areas of the Gulf Coast, Mexico and Cuba and spend summer north in the northern U.S. and Canada, according to Terrill.
Dennis Overstake said the cranes he’s been seeing arrived the week of Jan. 15 and were still there as of Sunday. He said that one day last week he and his wife counted about 20 of them, and on Sunday they counted 11. When Greg and Diane Roberts saw sandhill cranes on their Mad River Road property in early February of 2015, there were as many as 18 hanging out between a marshy area in a neighbor’s yard and a pond in their own backyard.
The ones on Franklin Road had been staying mostly in the vicinity of a small waterway in a cornfield, but on Saturday they flew across the road and spent most of the afternoon in a tree line between a couple fields.
According to the Division of Wildlife, sandhill cranes are primarily a wetland-dependent species. On their wintering grounds, they will utilize agricultural fields; however, they roost in shallow, standing water or moist bottomlands. On breeding grounds they require a rather large tract of wet meadow, shallow marsh, or bog for nesting.
In flight, the sandhill crane migrates at high elevations in large flocks, often composed of thousands of birds. The flight formation is usually a “V,” but sometimes it’s a straight line. The birds spend little time gliding and are noted for a quick upward wingbeat and a longer downward wingbeat. Sandhill cranes fly with their necks fully extended and can be distinguished from herons which fly with their necks bent in something of an “S” shape. They feed during daylight hours on grain, insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, a Division of Wildlife website says.
Overstake said he has heard coyotes that regularly run at night in the waterway area where the cranes have been staying, but evidently they haven’t scared the cranes off.
Sandhill cranes usually head south from mid November to December and, depending on the weather, head back north in very late January to March, Terrill said.
The plumage of the adult sandhill crane is gray with a bald red skin patch on its forehead. Their eyes are yellow and their bill, legs and feet are blackish. Immature sandhill cranes have a gray body with a brownish head and they lack the red skin patch.
“The sandhill crane is among the oldest living species of birds, dating back 2.5 million years. Today, it is an endangered species in Ohio,” the Division of Wildlife website says. “Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the sandhill crane is its tendency to dance. Although an integral part of their courtship, they can be seen dancing any time of the year. The dance of the sandhill crane includes many quick steps around each other, wings half spread with an occasional leap into the air up to eight feet off the ground. Part of this ceremony includes bowing toward one another. Outside of its occurrence during courtship in the spring, researchers are unclear as to why this behavior continues throughout the year.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.