Sandhill cranes offer peek at migration

This greater sandhill crane was photographed near Willow Lake by Cher Rydberg of Butte Falls, who submitted it for the 2010 Oregon Outdoors Wild Bird Photo Contest.

It's not often we get to see migration in action. A bird such as a Wilson's warbler or a western tanager appears in the yard for a couple of days and is gone. The birding books tell us it's a migrant heading between its wintering area to the south and its breeding area in the north, but we never really see the migration taking place.

The best opportunities to see migration is a "V" of geese discussing their adventures as they pass high overhead and silent kettles of turkey vultures soaring high and spilling out of a rising thermal to catch the next one along their path.

Another bird you can catch in the act of migration — and many residents of the valley have seen them this year — are sandhill cranes. These are impressive birds. All 15 species of cranes around the world are impressive birds. They are tall and stately, often with striking plumage. They may look like herons or storks, but they are more closely related to coots and rails.

Cranes are revered in several cultures in the Far East, where they represent faithfulness.

And most cranes are rare and declining. The whooping crane of central North America is the rarest and is slowly recovering from its low of 16 individuals in the early 1940s under close attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The current population is about 400 individuals. Six other species have populations of fewer than 10,000 individuals. You can learn more by visiting the International Crane Foundation website.

The sandhill crane is more secure. Two subspecies can be found in Oregon. The greater sandhill crane stands about 4.5 to 5 feet tall and breeds in the marshes to the east. An outing to the Dead Indian Plateau at this time should offer a few widely scattered pairs patrolling the meadows around Howard Prairie and other mountain meadows even when much of the area is still blanketed in snow. A pair or two even breed in the fields around Prospect. If you are lucky you may see their spectacular courtship dance.

The greater sandhill crane's smaller cousin, the lesser sandhill crane, which stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, passes over the county in large numbers on its way to the muskeg of Alaska and Canada, with some continuing on to Siberia. The two appear identical until you stand them side by side.

Our sandhill cranes winter in the southern half of California and northernmost Mexico. Come February they begin their northern trek, and eastern Jackson County is on their principal migration route. The skies above Prospect see the greatest number, with flocks sometimes numbering more than 200 birds.

Their next stop is Sauvie Island near Portland, where they will rest and recover before continuing north.

In some years, flocks are seen more often slightly to the west in and over the Bear Creek Valley. Flocks with their out-stretched necks and resonant calls have been seen and heard over the Siskiyous near Pilot Rock, at Emigrant Lake and over the slopes of Roxy Ann this year. A couple of weeks ago, a tired flock dropped in for a rest at Billings Pond in Ashland and was noted by many.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at

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