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Bruce Mactavish: Would the real crane please stand up?

A sandhill crane stands alert on a pile of waste corn that it found in the Goulds.
A sandhill crane stands alert on a pile of waste corn that it found in the Goulds. - Bruce Mactavish photo

It was noon on a Wednesday when I received a phone call at work from Shawn Fitzgerald about a crane in the Goulds. It was a sandhill crane to be more exact. Shawn had been alerted to its presence by Perry Howlett.

A sandhill crane is pretty rare bird on the island of Newfoundland occurring on average once every three or four years. The last one in the St. John’s area was four years ago and also in the Goulds. In fact nearly all of the sandhill crane records for the Avalon Peninsula over the years have been in the Goulds. It is the farm fields that bring the wandering sandhill cranes down from the sky. Sandhill cranes feed in open agricultural fields for much of the year. Nowhere else on the Avalon Peninsula has the extensive farm fields that are in the Goulds.

Sandhill cranes occur mostly in the western half of North America. They are slowly spreading their range eastward. Small numbers have been moving into Labrador over the last 20 years or more. A few pairs are now presumed nesting in some of the large bog areas around Goose Bay and Northwest River. Every spring and summer they are sightings of sandhill crane pairs in courtship rituals. Perhaps the Goulds crane was a Labrador bird gone off course.

During the nesting season sandhill cranes occur in the more a natural habitat of open wet boggy terrain. They nest across the low Arctic and down into the boreal forest belt across the northern Prairie Provinces. Sandhill cranes eat a wide variety of items in the summer including aquatic invertebrates, frogs, and seeds. In the winter they depend heavily on waste grain in agricultural fields. Sandhill cranes occur by the thousands during spring and fall migration in the wheat fields of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and spend the winter in grasslands and agricultural areas of south central United States

The Goulds sandhill crane somehow spotted a pile of waste corn. Such a find was like a 24-hour gourmet restaurant to a crane. Maybe it was the gulls and crows feeding there that piqued the crane’s interest. Cranes, like Canada geese, have a special craving for corn.

The sandhill crane also attracted the bird watchers and the photographers. For four days the crane was fairly easy to see on Pipeline Road in the Goulds back country but its popularity I think was the primary cause of its departure. The corn pile was too close to the road. The presence of curious onlookers on the road prevented the crane from getting to the corn pile to feed for much of the day. So it left. It can still do fine in the other agricultural fields but it seems to have vacated the area.

It was possible to watch crane gorge at the corn pile if you stayed in your car. The bird did not recognize cars as a big danger as long as the people inside, stayed inside. It was a very elegant bird. With each step of it long legs there was a corresponding throw back of the head. All of its movements were slow, sure and deliberate. It was on constant alert for danger and paid attention to the sounds of gulls and crows, which often see the danger first.

A crane is not a heron

The question is when is a crane not a crane but a heron? Crane is often slang word for heron or its very close ally the egret. Often I get a report of a crane that I know is really going to be a heron or an egret. The long neck and long legs are similar features of the heron group and cranes. Herons live a completely different life style from the sandhill crane. Herons feed in the water looking for fish and frogs. They would never eat corn or grain in a dry field like a crane. Herons nest in trees often in groups. Cranes nest alone on the ground. Sandhill cranes share many habits with Canada geese when it comes to food choices and nesting habitats. And believe it or not, there is a hunting season on sandhill cranes out west because they taste like Canada geese.

Speaking of herons it was gratifying to see photographs of a great blue heron attending a nest on Sandy Point in St. Georges Bay in southwestern Newfoundland. It was posted on the Newfoundland Birdwatching Group Facebook page by Jessie Sheppard. Herons have probably been nesting here for a couple decades but it was good to get the reaffirmation through the pictures. It was thought there were four to five pairs nesting present. This was excellent news for Newfoundland, which is on the northern edge of its breeding range.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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