PlanPhilly gets an eyeful of ornithological surprise

On Sunday, for a moment, PlanPhilly thought it was in Nebraska instead of New Jersey.

It was about 2 p.m. and as we were driving back to Philly from the shore our videographer noticed two very tall gray birds by the side of the roadway in Port Elizabeth. Brakes were applied and we drove back to get a second, closer look. The birds just did not appear to be our native Great Blue Herons, Ardea herodias, for you latin scholars.

We had seen photographs of Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, but never experienced one in real life. Could this couple be cranes? We noted the giveaway field marks (a bald red crown and bustlelike rear), the size: 40-48 inches of height (100-120 cm) and a wingspread of 6-7 feet. And we wondered, how could Sandhills be so far off course?

According to the Peterson Guide, Sandhill Cranes winter in Texas and Florida, then fly north through the center of the continent, to their main breeding grounds in Canada. While some do summer in and around the Great Lakes, the Rowe Sanctuary on the River Platte in Nebraska is known for the large numbers of cranes that stop there on their way north every March, which attracts bird lovers from around the world.

Crane numbers are threatened by loss of habitat, and while the cranes are protected in the United States, unfortunately they are still hunted in Canada.

The identification of our Sandhills was confirmed by Kent Skaggs, of Rowe Sanctuary & the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center. “The two birds in the photo are indeed Sandhill Cranes,” he wrote. “It is my understanding that cranes from the Midwest population that nest around the Great Lakes can be seen in your area from time to time. Hope you can visit Nebraska in March some day to see the cranes along the Platte River.”

If you need to feel a little mystical, here’s a tidbit from the Japanese-American Museum.

“For the Japanese, the crane—or tsuru—is considered a national treasure, appearing in art, literature, and folklore. The Japanese regard the crane as a symbol of good fortune and longevity because of its fabled life span of a thousand years. It also represents fidelity, as Japanese cranes are known to mate for life. Over time, the crane has also evolved as a favorite subject of the Japanese tradition of paper folding—origami—as children and adults attempt to master this art.”

So, this being the year of the Dragon, we have now seen Sandhill Cranes without having to fly to the River Platte. What good luck!


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