I had responded to the general in query “Where are you going to look for birds this weekend” by simply noting that we’d be going to “The Lake” (Minnesotan for a particular lake, the exact lake determined by context). But on the way up Amanda had the idea of going into Crane Meadow National Wildlife Refuge. This is a small refuge consisting of a swampy lake or two and the Platte River (no, not THAT Platte River), that is apparently famous for its cranes.
We we parked and took the biggest loop which was probably about four miles, along the river, to the lake, and back out again. The trail wanders through open grassland and woodland. Woodland is, of course, a landscape where there are lots of trees but sufficient light reaches the ground that there is a more or less continuous cover of grass. Here, the dividing line between open grassland and woodland was abrupt, and probably caused by edaphic conditions (the woodland where the water table was closer to the surface?) and fire (which tends to maintain a starker boundary between the two). Both habitats are part of the “savanna” or “prairie” habitat.
We saw numerous purple martins over the grasslands. The caretaker’s house has a martin house, which probably was a factor in that. We saw what I believe was a broad winged hawk. We saw three or four birds that we have yet to ID, and may not. We are very accustom to the forest birds. These woodland and prairie birds had us confounded. There was a big chickeny thing and something flying aerobatics and making a funny noise that was pretty unfamiliar to me. And, a woodpecker that simply did not fit any of our mental templates, though we know the woodpeckers very well. So it was a strange birding experience in the prairie.
When we got to the lake there were a half dozen white Pelicans feeding, one by itself, the rest in a group. But no cranes.
So eventually we headed out, trekked across a vast prairie patch, and and chatting. Amanda noted that we had not seen any cranes. I noted that maybe this was “Crane Meadow” because some guy named “Josiah Crane” once owned the land. Amanda noted that she had seen “Crane Meadow” on TV as a place were the cranes bred. I concurred, remembering this, but suggested that there may still be dozens of places called “Crane Meadow.”
“Like Long Lake. There are like 200 long Long Lakes in Minnesota.”
“I know. I counted them and told YOU that,” Amanda was saying, just as we saw them. …
As we were closing in on the parking lot, we saw a large v-formation flying north transverse to our direction.
“Look at those!” Amanda said.
“Geese.” I said, thinking they were Canada geese. They were quite far away, so I was guessing.
But Amanda was looking at them through the binoculars. “Canada geese with extra long legs!” she said, handing me the glasses.
So for the next few minutes we watched several formations of sand hill cranes moving in, circling around various patches of prairie or farmland, and moving on. We saw none alight, but it looked to me like they were checking out possible afternoon foraging spots. They seemed to be using thermals, but keeping in v-formations. One of the flocks has almost 100 birds, and together among all the flocks I’d estimate about 175 birds.1 I had no idea there WERE that many sandhill cranes in Minnesota!!!
That was nice. So the cranes flew off, and we drove off. Eventually, we got to the lake. Guess what. The birds ate all the bird food again!!!! They keep doing that!
1According to the Crane Meadow web site, there are over “30 nesting pairs” here. So, I suppose we were looking at adults and young, or that info is a bit old, or there are a lot of non-nesting cranes hanging around.