BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
The sight of migrating birds in the sky has always moved me—even if it’s just 20 or so geese flying in their familiar V-shaped formation. It’s nice to know that some cycles of nature remain after human actions over the past 100+ years have caused nearly 500 animal species to become extinct as a result of overhunting, the destruction of prime natural habitat, and other factors. The migrating birds also help humans mark the passage of seasons. Seeing and hearing these beautiful birds tells us that change is in the air. Winter or spring is coming, and we better get ready. It makes me feel good to know that this time immemorial migration continues in the skies above America, Canada, and other countries throughout the world.
Cranes are some of the most impressive and beautiful migratory birds. Some cranes—such as sandhill cranes—are numerous (although they’re still vulnerable to habitat loss), while others, such as the whooping crane are endangered. The whooping crane, which only lives in North America, is our continent’s tallest bird, with males approaching 5 feet when standing erect. In some cultures, cranes are symbols of happiness, good fortune, and eternal youth because of their fabled life span of a thousand years. Cranes don’t live that long, of course, but they can live to more than 35 years in the wild. It’s kind of cool that cranes that passed over my head when I was in high school still may be doing so this fall and spring. Way to go cranes!
Crane-Watching in the Chicagoland area
You can see cranes in the lakes and wetlands throughout the Chicago area, but if you want to see thousands—if not tens of thousands—of cranes in one place, you should visit Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area (5822 Fish and Wildlife Lane Medaryville, IN 47957 219/843-4841) as I did on Thursday. Jasper-Pulaski—which features 8,142 acres of wetland, upland, and woodland habitat—is located about 1 hour and 10 minutes from Chicago’s far south side.
Cranes and more than 325 other bird species make the round-trip each year along the Mississippi Flyway (see photo above). They travel to and from their breeding grounds in Canada and northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico (primarily Georgia and Florida) and in Central and South America. (As the climate has warmed in recent years, some cranes and other birds are wintering in the Midwest.) The Indiana Department of Natural Resources reports that “sandhill cranes can be seen at Jasper-Pulaski from late September through December. Crane numbers peak in mid-November. Magnificent, noisy flocks are usually seen at the northern Indiana property from mid-October through mid-December.” The cranes can be viewed at the Goose Pasture Viewing Area. On November 17, 2020, 16,375 cranes were counted at Jasper-Pulaski. The record daily crane count has reached nearly 35,000. Here are a few sandhill crane facts from the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary:
- Height: 3 to 4 feet
- Weight: 6 to 12 pounds
- Wingspan: 6 to 7 feet
- Lifespan: 20 to 40 years
- Flight speed and distance: 25 to 35 mph; cranes typically travel 200 to 300 miles in a day, but can reach 500 miles with a good tail wind.
My Quest to See the Cranes
I arrived at the parking lot of the Jasper-Pulaski crane viewing platform at around 4:20 p.m. (Eastern time). Sunset was at 5:30 p.m. I headed toward the crane viewing platform, which is about a 5-minute walk from the parking lot. Birdwatchers who have disabilities can use a separate entry to park next to the platform.
The viewing platform was filled with people gazing at the sky, cameras around their necks or tripods in hand. I was pleased that everyone was wearing a mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I headed to an area below the platform with a low wooden fence to stake out a more “pandemic safe” space. Before me was a large green field surrounded in the distance by trees that had shed all of their leaves. The cranes forage for food in the wetlands and farm fields beyond the trees during the day and return to the area near the platform each night to socialize before heading to their night roosting spots. About 25 deer grazed in the field.
And We Waited
There was a real sense of anticipation in the crowd. A woman who was setting up a large tripod began telling stories to anyone who would listen about past visits to Jasper-Pulaski. Others played with their kids or dogs. One guy had an extended conversation with his dog: “I don’t think you’ve ever seen so many deer…maybe 2-3, but this is more than a dozen….Let’s go read that sign to learn more about the cranes, although I’m not sure if you can read or not.” Some people just sat in camp chairs and enjoyed the warm (65 degrees), but very windy, day. There were even a few foreign-language speakers in the crowd. I savored the musicality of Hindi and Dutch as I watched the sun gradually sink toward the horizon. It felt wonderful to soak in the warmth of the sun, watch the ever-changing clouds, and scan the sky for cranes.
And Then They Arrived
The cranes began arriving from the northeast. You first hear their distinctive throaty trill before you see them, and then you spot them in the sky. At any one time, there were up to 200 birds flying above us in beautiful formations. Some formations had an almost mathematical precision, while others were a little ragged. You could tell that the strong gusts were blowing them around a bit because some flocks would have to reorganize mid-air before resuming their journey. The cranes kept coming and coming. It was like a bird highway. But we soon learned that there was no off ramp to our rest stop. From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., the bird highway kept going, but only 10 or so cranes landed in the field below the viewing platform. There were more deer on the ground than cranes. Not the thousands I’d seen in the field in photographs and videos. This was disappointing, but that’s nature. Maybe the cranes were tired due to the 30- to 40-mile-per-hour winds and simply decided to head to their night roosting area. Who knows?
Making Lemonade From Lemons
My disappointment didn’t last long. It was a great visit because:
- I got the chance to escape the house, which hasn’t occurred too often in the time of COVID.
- I was able to take a short road trip. I like to drive through small towns, see farm animals (I saw an alpaca and a miniature horse at one farm), and otherwise see the world.
- The 1,000+ cranes I saw were a beautiful and powerful reminder of nature’s timeless cycles. The deer—including the one that bounded across the grass—were not too bad either.
- The weather was great, and it was fantastic to feel the sun and wind on my face.
- The sunset, mixed with just the right amount of passing clouds—was picture-perfect.
As it became clear that the birds would not be visiting the viewing platform field, the crowd began to disperse. But the sunset was stunning, the weather was nice (although windy), a few straggler cranes were still flying by, and I’d driven a little over an hour to get there, so I decided to stay. By 5:40 p.m., nearly everyone had drifted away as a crescent moon rose and the sky grew pinker. Soon, I was the last visitor on the platform and—regardless of the day’s developments—it felt good to soak in the sunset (which reminded me of a Rothko painting), the moonglow, and the solitude and darkness. As a city person, I’m always fascinated about how dark, still, and lonely the country gets at night. Eventually, I walked down the platform steps and took the trail through a small pine forest back to my car and the land of streetlights, houses, dinner plans, and my family.
You should head out to Jasper-Pulaski this fall or next spring to see this amazing crane migration. Your quest will temporarily take you away from our troubled times and allow you to experience the powerful cycles of nature. I’ll be heading back to Jasper-Pulaski because, while I enjoyed my visit, I still want to see the cranes en-mass at the viewing platform. If you visit, I can’t promise that you’ll get the full crane experience or just the crane sky highway like I saw, but I can guarantee that if you love birds, you’ll have an enjoyable time regardless.
Tips Before You Go
Use this map to help you navigate Jasper-Pulaski. Note that there are multiple pull-off parking areas throughout the property, where you can park and explore.
According to the IDNR, the best times of the day to see the cranes are:
- “Sunrise: Gigantic flocks rise and fly out of roosting marshes to Goose Pasture. The cranes socialize in the pasture for a while before flying out to feed in surrounding private land (agricultural fields). Sunset: Beginning about one hour before sunset, flocks of cranes kite into Goose Pasture from all directions. They gab and socialize again before returning to roosting marshes at dusk.”
Click here to see a daily crane count and sign up for an email update on crane numbers.
Bring binoculars, although there are a few viewing scopes at the viewing platform.
Dress warmly, when necessary.
Arrive at least one hour before sunrise and sunset to ensure a good viewing spot and so that you don’t miss the cranes.
Click here for some crane photography tips.
Washrooms are available on site.
Check out the following resources for more information on sandhill cranes:
- Audubon: Sandhill Cranes
- Cornell University-All About Birds: Sandhill Crane
- Important Bird Areas Jasper: Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area and Surrounding Areas
In addition to crane watching, visitors to Jasper-Pulaski can also fish (primary species include catfish, bluegill, and largemouth bass) and hunt (deer, quail, rabbit, squirrel, snipe, dove, sora rails, woodcock, waterfowl, and wild turkey are common).
Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes
Copyright (photos) Andrew Morkes, unless otherwise credited
BY ANDREW MORKES, FOUNDER & AUTHOR OF NATURE IN CHICAGOLAND
2021 BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT
Looking for more great nature destinations in Chicagoland? If so, I just published Nature in Chicagoland: More Than 120 Fantastic Nature Destinations That You Must Visit. It features amazing destinations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Click on the title to learn more.
ABOUT ANDREW MORKES
I have been a writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. I’m the founder of College & Career Press (2002); the editorial director of the CAM Report career newsletter and College Spotlightnewsletter; the author and publisher of “The Morkes Report: College and Career Planning Trends” blog; and the author and publisher of Hot Health Care Careers: 30 Occupations With Fast Growth and Many New Job Openings; Nontraditional Careers for Women and Men: More Than 30 Great Jobs for Women and Men With Apprenticeships Through PhDs; They Teach That in College!?: A Resource Guide to More Than 100 Interesting College Majors, which was selected as one of the best books of the year by the library journal Voice of Youth Advocates; and other titles. They Teach That in College!? provides more information on environmental- and sustainability-related majors such as Ecotourism, Range Management, Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Built Environment, Sustainability Studies, and Sustainable Agriculture/Organic Farming. I’m also a member of the parent advisory board at my son’s school.
In addition to these publications, I’ve written more than 40 books about careers for other publishing and media companies. I’ve written and edited many books for Infobase including the venerable Encyclopedia of Careers & Vocational Guidance, the Vault Career Guide to Accounting, and many volumes in the Careers in Focus, Discovering Careers, What Can I Do Now?!, and Career Skills Library series.