Monday, April 27, 2015

Montana Birds: Sandhill Crane

Sandhills mate for life; oldest sandhill on record lived at least 36 years, 7 mos...ChucknGaleRobbins photo

Sandhill cranes are big—4 feet tall, with wing spans approaching 6 feet—and imposing what with their long legs and neck, rapier-like bill and those piercing eyes—powerful enough to scrutinize the slightest suspect movement at unbelievable distances.

Their spectacular mating dance—bowing, leaping, hopping, skipping and pirouetting—all the while yodeling that loud unmistakable rolling rattle which can be heard miles away—is well, inimitable, and among the most remarkable in all nature.  One nature writer compares it to the sound of “fingernails drawn along the teeth of several combs,” undulating up and down and amplified by the birds’ exceptionally long windpipe.
Omnivorous, cranes have been know to dine on berries, seeds, snakes, amphibians, mice, voles, and just about everything else out there.

The nest is a simple affair, a shallow depression lined with dry grass and weeds, maybe a few feathers. Typically the female lays 1-3 spotted, grayish brown eggs; both parents incubate the eggs which hatch in about 30 days. It is not uncommon for just one egg to hatch. Sandhill chicks, “colts” can run and swim just a few hours after leaving the nest.

Fossil records indicate the sandhill has been around for millions years. Long-lived, sandhills mate for life. The oldest sandhill on record was at least 36 years, 7 months old. Originally banded in Wyoming in 1973, it was found dead in New Mexico in 2010.

...Many sandhills which nest in southwest Montana overwinter here in Whitewater Draw, in southeast Arizona's Sulphur Springs Valley between Wilcox and Douglas. This January day a couple years ago biologists estimated 25,000 sandhills were using the Draw... 

Recent surveys put the Rocky Mountain population at about 20,000 cranes. In Montana about 500 hunting permits are issued annually. Sandhills, which nest in southwest Montana, winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeast Arizona between Wilcox and Douglas or across the border in New Mexico at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

In western Montana, one of the top spots for viewing cranes up close is the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Beaverhead County, 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park.  Look for cranes along creeks, wetlands, and open grassy areas.

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