Sandhill Cranes Return to the Belgrade Lakes Watershed
– Article and photographs by Logan Parker, MLRC Community Engagement Coordinator
“On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh“. – Aldo Leopold, Marshland Elegy
As the alders and maples begin bud and the cap of lake ice begins to melt, I begin to spend more mornings out in the marshlands. It’s not long after the year-round Black-capped Chickadees and Brown Creepers begin to sing that we hear the virtuoso Song Sparrow rejoin the dawn chorus. Soon after the seasonal blackbirds, Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds both, stream in to our wetlands from the south. These birds, all males, are tolerant and downright gregarious in the early spring. When the females arrive just a few weeks behind, however, that tolerance vanishes. While I admire the songs and calls of all the region’s birds, during this time of year I have my ears trained for one species in particular: the Sandhill Crane.
For anyone who has heard the loud, bugling rattle of this charismatic bird or witnessed their spiraling descent into a marsh, it should come has no surprise that any watershed resident would be anxious for their arrival each spring. You do not have to be a “birder” to appreciate the elegance of this tall, red-capped crane from the south. Each winter, these birds flock in truly impressive numbers in Texas, California, Florida, and northern Mexico (Maier). While the cranes have a large migratory range, the breeding range of the Sandhill crane includes the Alaska, northwestern Canada, and some areas within the northwestern United States. In recent decades, however, Sandhill cranes have begun to appear in New England and even in the Belgrade Lakes (eBird, 2016).
The earliest records of Sandhill crane sightings in the Belgrades date back only to the late 20th Century. It wasn’t until the summer of 2000, that a New England crane researcher by the name of Scott Melvin discovered a nesting pair of crane in the Belgrade Lakes Region. Since Melvin’s observations in 2000, breeding cranes have been readily observed nesting in wetlands throughout the watershed (Melvin, 2002). Some locals speculate that the cranes were blown off course and found their way to the Belgrade Lakes by chance. In an article for the Northeastern Naturalist however, Melvin suggested that the Sandhill cranes were not merely expanding their range, but were recolonizing the Northeast after centuries of extirpation. Melvin explored scattered historical accounts of cranes from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that suggest the birds migrated to (and potentially nested) in New England in centuries past (Melvin, 2002).
Today, the wetlands of the Belgrade Lakes watershed are of vital importance to the Sandhill cranes. Indeed, it is upon lakeside marshes, fens, and other wetlands that cranes build their nests and defend their eggs and young from predators. They are also important food sources across the full range of their migrations. “The Sandhill Crane is not exceptional in its need for wetlands. It may be no surprise that areas with plentiful wetlands host a variety of creatures that have made themselves at home in the marshes, bogs, and fens, that cover much of the landscape” (Maier). Indeed, wildlife such as the state endangered Black Tern and Little Brown Bat also depend on our local wetlands for nesting and/or foraging grounds. We, too, benefit from the critical services wetlands provide such as filtering nutrients, soaking up floodwaters, and preventing erosion.
On a cool morning in late March of this year, I patiently scanned the fog-shrouded marsh for any sign of the slate-colored crane. For a time, all was still. A clamoring rattle sounded from the north breaking the silence. I turned my scope just in time to catch a glimpse of two cranes rising from the floating vegetation before the pair disappeared deeper into the wetlands. A new season has begun on the crane marsh.
For more information on Sandhill Cranes, click here.
eBird. 2016. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: http://www.ebird.org. 4/9/16)
Melvin, Scott M. (2002). “First Breeding Records and Historical Status of Sandhill Cranes in Maine and New England. Northeastern Naturalist, Vol. 9: No. 2. Eagle Hill Institute.
Leopold, Aldo. (1949). “Marshland Elegy” A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press. Oxford, United Kingdom.
Maier, Craig. “Sandhill Cranes and Wetlands”. The Backyard Almanac. Also Leopold Foundation.