Each February Leonard and I anxiously await the return of the sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Their arrival signals that despite cold temperatures, howling North winds and even snow, spring IS not too far away. We love to listen to their rolling, rattling, trumpeting, far-carrying calls, reminiscent of a Jurassic Park environment.
When we saw our first sandhill cranes of 2018 on February 6th, Leonard and I thought it might set a record for early arrivals. However, upon checking our records for the last ten years, we discovered this year was the next earliest return. In 2015 we located the first sandhill cranes of the season on February 4th. The latest return was February 25th in 2009, while most years the cranes came back to Big Valley between the 10th and 17th of February.
Other than resident populations in Florida, Mississippi and Cuba, North American sandhill cranes winter in the Southern States and Northern Mexico. Summer breeding occurs in the northern part of the continent. Here in Northern California we are at the southern limit of their summer range.
These large, majestic birds are grey with a dark red crown. When standing, sandhill cranes have a conspicuous tertial bulge that resembles a bustle. Monogamous, sandhill cranes choose their mates on the basis of spectacular leaping dancing displays. Couples pair for life and remain together throughout the year. Juveniles remain with their parents throughout migration and the winter, only separating in the spring following their birth.
The sandhill crane’s distinctive call is the result of a long trachea that coils around the sternum. This lengthened trachea helps develop the low pitched sound that is filled with harmonics.
These early arrivals were photographed at Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc and Lassen Counties in CA) near the headquarters and near Pilot Butte.