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Field Notes: Calling All Cranes

Sanhill cranes in flight.
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Sanhill cranes in flight.

It was a beautiful day for birding. There were broken clouds allowing the March sun to peek through, taking away the morning chill. A gentle breeze blew, keeping temperatures comfortable as the day progressed.

The group met near the visitor center at the Lee Metcalf Refuge where we watched Widgeons, Coots, Mallards, and Gadwalls moving on the pond. Duck sounds filled the air. We continued out the Kenai Trail, stopping to observe a Red-Tailed Hawk flying across the field and we noticed a kestrel perched atop a fir tree. We lingered at a viewing area where we observed a variety of ducks and Canada Geese swimming in the water below us. I was focused on some small birds flitting in and out of nearby bushes when I stopped!

An unusual, loud sound caught my attention. I wondered if it was a Sandhill Crane, but the sound wasn’t quite right. Several of us kept scanning with our binoculars and eventually located the large bird on a bank far beyond a nearby waterway. Despite the odd call, it was a Sandhill Crane. Camouflage was effective.

All morning I was distracted by the crane’s odd call. It wasn’t the call you hear when cranes announce their presence, flying overhead or preparing for a landing. The sound had a nasal quality and repetitious "Angg-k". Each time I heard it, I would locate it again, in a different place. Sometimes it was down in the marsh reeds and other times down a bank where head movement caught my attention. The odd call and behavior left me feeling unsettled, but why?

We had birded out as far as we were going to go and were making our way back. The crane’s call caught my attention once again. This time the crane was much closer. The gorgeous gray body feathers came together at the rump, creating a bustle that rippled in the breeze. The long neck and legs gave it a gangly appearance. The top of the head and cheek streak were a lush ruby red. The beak was long and substantial. This was a very large bird!

It began walking along a service road parallel with me, its gait awkward. The crane moved in perfect rhythm down the dirt road, thrusting its head forward as it continued calling: “Angg-k, Angg-k, Angg-k.” The monotonous, nasally call was somewhat annoying and began to grate on my nerves but my curiosity kept drawing me back. I was beginning to develop scenarios in my head.

After more than an hour of watching and listening, I had many questions. Why was this crane alone? At no time did a companion join it. Where were its friends? Was there a partner? Was this bird complaining or voicing an opinion? Was it a young crane separated from the flock? Was the mate taking too long doing errands when they had work to do? Was it injured and unable to fly? I could still hear the call as I entered my car: "Angg-k, Angg-k, Angg-k."

Researching at home, I learned that Sandhill Cranes like to travel in flocks. They tend to partner for life. Their usual call is a series of loud rattling bugles, each lasting a couple of seconds and often strung together. They can be heard up to 2.5 miles away. Other calls they make are moaning, hissing, honking and snoring sounds. The nasal call I heard was not mentioned in my reading. I spoke to some knowledgeable birders. They had no answers but agreed cranes like to be with their own.

I could not come to a conclusion. My research and conversations, along with my own observation, led me to believe this bird was in distress. Perhaps it was somehow separated from the group and was letting the world know.

Spending the morning with a Sandhill Crane was an unforgettable experience. I became very connected to this bird as I observed its appearance, listened to its call and watched its movements. I will never know why the odd call, but it was a thrill to have “one-on-one” time with this elegant bird!

'Field Notes' is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 3/23/21 and 3/26/21. Listen weekly on the radio Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)