Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What in sand-hill? Cranes make Somerset a habit.

After a few years of birding, you get to know where the rarities are going to be, and when. It's more than understanding that Red Knots are going to arrive on the Delaware Bay in May or that the Short-Eared Owl will be hunting the grasslands of the Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge in the dead of winter. It's knowing that if a certain species is going to show in New Jersey at all, it'll be within a certain range of dates at a given location.

You might even say that it's a given that if the unlikely is going to happen, the experienced birder is going to know when and where it will occur.

Where's Sandy? The Randolph Road Sandhill Cranes,
neatly camouflaged in corn stubble.
It's that way for Sandhill Cranes. Ask a longtime birder if she's seen one this year, and she'll tell you whether she's recently visited a certain street in Somerset. I don't know if anyone knows exactly why the birds have adopted the spot for a late fall visit over the better part of a decade, but this year up to eight at a time have been seen in a cornfield across from a corporate park on Randolph Road.

About the height of a Great Blue Heron but twice as heavy, Sandhill Cranes are normally western birds, known for hanging out in large numbers in prairies and the type of grasslands that are not natural habitats in New Jersey. Spending their summers in Canada, large flocks make their way to Nebraska and other points south and west for the winter. Talk to folks in New Mexico, and they'll marvel over the spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes congregating at the state's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, their rattling calls heard up to two miles away.

Sandhill crane. Credit: Department of the Interior/USGS
New Jersey's crane visitors appear to be a lot quieter, or at least their sparse numbers don't gain the same level of attention for their calls. A few birders at a time might stop on the shoulder of the road to get a good eyeful or a couple of photographs as the birds forage for leftover corn or the occasional rodent. Otherwise, they go without notice, blending rather nicely with the stubbled cornstalks on the field.

Besides Somerset, Sandhills have been known to show up in Cape May, Mercer and Camden Counties at times over the past 20 years, but it's not clear whether those places produce sightings as reliably as the Randolph Road cornfield. We saw them among a foraging herd of longhorn cattle in New Egypt a couple of years ago while on a chase to see the even rarer Northern Lapwings, but nobody's reported them since.

Why these individuals aren't with a larger flock, we'll never know, but I'm selfishly happy to be able to see them here, rather than having to travel west for the spectacle. If they're looking for a bit of solitude or distance from the clamor of the Sandhill Crane lifestyle, it's ironic that they've chosen the country's most densely populated state to spend a few weeks in.

On the other hand, they may have a good reason. Interestingly, while I was checking into the cranes' visitation to these parts, I came upon one of the most novel bird-related theories I've ever read. A group of Jersey Devil hunters submits that some of those who've claimed to see Mother Leeds' 13th child may have actually seen a Sandhill Crane instead. With their height and impressive six foot wingspan, the cranes would give an unsuspecting wanderer a good fright, but I'm skeptical. The cranes, on the other hand, may just be stopping by to find their storied cousin.

It's as good an explanation as any. Right?


  1. Hey, I know that cornfield....but I have never seen sandhill cranes in it! Excellent catch Sue! When I lived in Florida I was fortunate to see sandhills quite frequently; their flight path at about fender height *across* SR 60 in Brandon usually caused a commotion, although probably not as great as seeing the Jersey Devil!

  2. On March 25th of this year, I was driving by a corn field in Somerset and was amazed to see 5-6 Sandhill Cranes. What a wonderful sight! I didn't think they migrated this far east. I only wish I had my camera with me.

    1. Wow! I didn't know they stuck around that far into the season, though I guess it makes sense. (I mean, where else would they go before migration?)


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