The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 15, 2005


Sandhill Crane

photo by Ellen Huber

This is a story of more than the first confirmed sighting of a sandhill crane in Carlisle; it's also about the kind of town where such an event might happen, such an event might be noticed, and about the kind of community where people know the names of whom to notify.

It all began on April 7, around 3:45 on a quiet spring afternoon, when Roberta Spang of Fiske Street spotted three heron-like birds in the cornfield in Hutchins Field at the corner of Curve and Fiske Streets. Her husband, Steve, identified them as sandhill cranes. He knew this was unusual and that word of the bird should be spread. "It's a's a crane!" This is one of only two species of cranes native to North America — the other one being the very rare and endangered whooping crane.

A flock of birders: The Spangs started calling the people they knew would be interested and soon the who's who of the Carlisle Christmas Bird Count group were on hand with scopes and binoculars. This gang of observers included Betty Valentine, the Hartes, the Brownriggs, Susan Emmons, Ellen Huber, Ann James and others. Art Milliken and his son Peter were lucky enough to be biking by at just the right time and they joined in. Kim Donovan and her son Jack, who had spotted the birds on their own as they drove by, came back to investigate. The Audubon Society was notified; web sites were updated; a rare bird happening was fully fledged.

Back to the bird: The sandhill crane is Grus canadensis. It is not rare in certain parts of North America, like the Platte River in Nebraska where it congregates, but it is seldom seen in Massachusetts. It is a large bird, about 4 feet long and with a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. The length of birds is not defined as how tall they stand. It is the distance from the tip of the beak to the tip of the tail, — so the sandhill crane probably stands about five feet tall. Despite the height, the weight is low. The adult male is around 12 pounds on average, and the female around 9 or 10 pounds. D'Ann Brownrigg has described them as "about the same height as I am, but they weigh less." Sandhill cranes are all gray, except for a red featherless forehead and white cheeks. They often have brown markings as did all three of these ones. The brown color is the result of preening with mud and vegetation laden with iron oxide which stains the feathers. When the crane is standing, the secondary wing feathers droop over the rump in an avian version of a bustle.

Birders line up on Fiske Street to catch sight of the sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield on the far side of Hutchins Field. Shown, left to right, are Susan Emmons, Ann James, Roberta Spang, Tom Brownrigg (looking into telescope), Ken Harte, Marilyn Harte, Steve Spang and Betty Valentine. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
Lookalikes: From a distance and with only a glimpse you could probably understand statements like, "I didn't know if I was looking at a tall goose or a short deer!" Most often it is the great blue heron that is confused with the sandhill crane, and while they are of similar height, there are key differences. The great blue tends to be a solitary bird and it doesn't forage in corn fields — it would be seen standing or wading slowly in a pond looking for fish. In flight, the great blue has the characteristic S-shaped heron neck while the sandhill's neck is straight. The great blue has neither the red crown nor the "bustle" of the sandhill.

Additional sightings: A sighting at the cranberry bog and another at Great Brook Farm State Park were reported to Audubon. Simon Perkins of Mass Audubon came over and saw the three cranes on April 8 flying high over the cranberry bog and heading in a NNE direction. He thinks they were probably heading far away from Carlisle. There is a known breeding pair in Maine leading to some speculation as to whether they could have been this group. Sandhill cranes mate for life and return to the same nesting sites often with one or two of their previous year's offspring.

The continuing saga of sandhills: The pile of stuff at the end of my driveway that I had thought was snow turns out to have been a mixture of snow and sand. There must have been a lot of sand spread on the roads this winter and plowed off in heaps along with the snow. Now that the snow has finally melted I find I have my own sandhill, sadly craneless. And while I'm on about sandhills...there is a pile of dirt and sand half-way up the road at the Banta-Davis Land. On this sandhill, there are several coltsfoot blooming. The flower looks more like a dandelion than a colts foot. It is one of the early wild flowers and just another indication that spring is here.

References: David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds; the Audubon Society web site at National Geographic has a live webcam at the Rowe Sanctuary where the sandhill cranes gather on the Platte River in Nebraska. See it at The web site also has sandhill crane videos.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito