The rolling hills around West Branch, Michigan are a patchwork of pasture, marsh, hayfields, and woodlots. By mid October the colors are confined to muted greens and browns with a scattering of dark green Balsam Fir and White Pine thrown in for effect. Although most of the deciduous trees had already shed their leaves, the Oaks remained rich ochre and the Sugar maples were still holding onto their crop of bright orange leaves – lending patches of fire to the autumn landscape.
Against this background, which also included herds of black and white cattle, it was a large group of tall gray birds that commanded the most visual attention. My wife and I came upon a flock of migrant Sandhill Cranes as we traveled along one of the back roads. It was late afternoon, around 4 pm, and the low angle of the fall sun highlighted the gangly group as they sauntered through the pasture. Their white cheeks, elevated above the ground about four feet, caught the light. There were about 60 of them and they were strung out along the low weedy portion of the fence line. The combined sight of wild birds and tame cows in the same field made for an unusual view.
The sight of Sandhill Cranes, the tallest resident bird in the state, is not an uncommon thing in most parts of Michigan. There is a firm breeding population here and both the rusty summer birds and their offspring are regularly seen in local pasturelands. Starting in late September, the big birds assemble and begin to gather into large “staging areas” in preparation for their long journey south – a trip that takes eventually takes them to north-central Florida. By October, the migration is in full swing and places like Waterloo Game Area near Jackson become populated by thousands of staging birds. These pasteurized West Branch birds were part of a migrant flock probably making their way down to Waterloo.
I pulled off the road to get a better look at the creatures and aroused the suspicion of the farmer across the road. I assured him everything was alright and asked him about the cranes over yonder. “Oh them, “he grunted, “they come here all the time – especially in the field behind the house.” There was large marsh there and I gathered that is where these birds would probably spend the night. As he turned to amble back to his ramshackle farmhouse he added,”yeah, they are pretty wary too.” True to form, the birds were keeping a keen eye on me and the car even though we were probably over 1,000 feet away and not getting any closer due to the fence. The cows didn’t pay us any mind.
One thing that was notable about these fall cranes is that they were clean gray in color. As I alluded to earlier, their spring/summer plumage is typified by a rusty – nearly deerlike – shade of brown. They literally get this from the iron-rich muds found in their breeding marshes. By fall, the rusty feathers are mostly replaced by gray ones. A few of the birds retained an umber shoulder bar and the younger birds still sported brownish plumage.
As one sub-group ambled into another, they erupted into a bout of gargling and dancing (which is about the same thing that people do, now that I think of it!). This was part of a greeting ceremony which involves wing-spreading, jumping, and calling. Several of the birds spread their wings and bounded straight into the air similar to the style of African dance (see below and here).
The call of the Sandhill is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature and one which carries for long distances. It’s hard to define, or confine it, as an English phrase, but “garoo-a-a-a” with a rolling “r” does the trick. Even though the wind was carrying some of the sound away from us, it was still very clear (listen to recording here). It’s a wild sound that, like the wind, never sits still.
We returned to the spot the next day, but the birds were long gone. The cows were there, along with their pies, but the pasture was once again quiet and domestic.