In the 1970s and early 80s, birders began noticing massive flocks of enormous birds flying over and stopping to roost in south-central Kentucky. Identified as Sandhill cranes, these migrators spend summertime in Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Though hefty individuals that stand four-and-a-half to five feet tall, weigh 10 to 14 pounds and have a wingspan ranging between 5 to 7 feet, they get cold, and, like human “snowbirds,” head south for the winter. Some fly all the way to Florida, Georgia and Cuba, while others only travel as far as Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
This past October, flocks of Sandhill cranes were spotted flying about a mile up over Kentucky. On Nov. 23, the first group arrived at Barren River Lake State Resort Park in Lucas, Ky., near Glasgow, where they will stay all winter. And thanks to a partnership that began four years ago between the park and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, folks have the opportunity to learn about and observe these fascinating birds up close.
On the weekend of Feb. 17, the big gray Sandhills – the most abundant of the world’s cranes – are the focus at Barren River Lake. Wayne Tamminga, wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, will present a PowerPoint educational program all about Sandhills on Friday evening. The next day, expert area birders will lead two van tours to watch the cranes in their habitat. The 6 a.m. tour will begin at the roosting site, observe the birds leaving the site and follow them to cleared cornfields, where they spend the day eating bugs and seeds.
The afternoon tour is just the reverse, beginning at those grain fields, watching them lift off and wrapping up at the roosting site, as the cranes return for the evening. Participants can choose one of those two tour options. Bringing a camera is a must.
“The lake is drawn down to winter pool levels, leaving thousands of acres of mud flats and shallow pools,” Tamminga explained. “Cranes roost there because they can see and hear predators easily. Every morning, literally thousands take off from their roosting site. It’s pretty loud and an impressive sight, really a once in a lifetime experience.”
Just before dusk, the Sandhills return to roost, in flocks of 10s, 50s or hundreds. There may be as many as 10,000 altogether. After feeding all day, they’re not as loud but still impressive, said Tamminga.
Many people who aren’t aware of this important migration mistake the flying calls for those of the more common Canada geese, he added. But the cranes’ cries are more musical, with a sort of throaty trilling. When settling for the night, the daytime calls become a cooing or purring.
Tour participants will have plenty of opportunity to study the birds’ behavior patterns. Tall, with long necks and legs, Sandhills are distinctive, with a red forehead, white cheeks and a long, dark, pointed bill. Behaviors include “calling,” during which the crane stands upright with its head thrown back and beak pointed skyward, and “dancing,” which can include bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing and wing flapping. Though definite mating behavior, dancing can occur at any time.
“The tour does not stay in a blind,” said Jamie Avery, parks program service supervisor at Barren River Lake. “The cranes fly directly overhead. It’s always awesome to see wildlife in its natural habitat.”
For this special weekend, the park is offering special room rates at the 51-room Louie B. Nunn Lodge for program participants. Consider staying the weekend to play golf on an 18-hole course, warm your innards with a steaming hot brown at the lodge’s Driftwood Restaurant, raise your heart rate in a fitness center or on a two-and-a-half-mile biking and hiking trail, or simply put your feet up and revel in the beauty of rolling, tree-covered hills surrounding a 10,000-acre lake.
You can even check email, as the entire lodge is wireless.
Whatever you do, do not miss this opportunity to see gorgeous Sandhill cranes in the wild. You can watch the birdies at Barren River Lake State Resort Park by reservation only. A $30/person fee includes the educational session, a box lunch, a guided van trip and a T-shirt.
To find out more, visit parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/barren-river/default.aspx, email [email protected], or call (800) 325-0057.