Over part of the Thanksgiving weekend I was in the Ocala National Forest, holding my breath and smiling as I stalked a pair of Sandhill Cranes with a camera. I was completely happy doing this, and I’d like to thank my late parents for getting me to that moment. I consider myself truly fortunate to have the parents I had, and I see them in myself more and more as I grow older. It is because of their endless creative curiosity and love for the natural world that I am willing to sit motionless, hands numbing, in a dew-soaked canoe, on a misty lake, in 30 degree weather, before sunrise, just to get a photo of a fairly common bird.
It only just now occurred to me how silly this activity may seem to one person—crazy, really— but also how absolutely normal it may be for someone else.
There was so much mist on the lake each morning that I could not see the Sandhills until I got quite close, but I was certain that they would be there. I had watched them start and end each day in a marshy spot of a small central Florida lake. At sunrise they would fly off, to later return just before sunset and land in the same spot, sometimes announcing their arrival with a distinctive “unison” call.
Evolutionists believe Sandhill Cranes, Grus canadensis, are the oldest living bird species, dating back almost 10 million years. Sandhills can grow up to five feet in height and weigh fourteen pounds, and have an average wingspan of five or six feet (the Florida Sandhill is a bit smaller). According to the International Crane Foundation, there are an estimated 650,000 Sandhill Cranes worldwide, but the Florida sub-species, Grus canadensis pratensis, may number about 5000. They are doing well, thanks to habitat conservation, and this is good.
If you have ever heard Sandhills call as they glide overhead on a cool fall day, you’ll probably agree that habitat conservation is good.
Don’t agree? Consider this: There are an estimated 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and waterways in Florida, and an estimated 7700 lakes that are greater than 10 acres in area (that leaves countless smaller ones). There are more than 370,000 hotel rooms in Florida and over 100,000 campsites, with yearly campers numbering 6 million. Six million campers a year. Six million outdoor nuts are buying groceries, gas, camping gear, sunscreen, insect repellant, batteries... you get it. Six million campers—that’s a lot of marshmallows to roast, and if you’re like my family, the more remote the camp area or small town to roast them in, the better.
Crazy people who sit in canoes and photograph birds are necessary for Florida’s economy to thrive year-round, and those door-buster Black Friday camp-outs in the Wal-Mart parking lot only happen once a year. So, not so crazy.
Back into the canoe in that small central Florida lake on that cold morning: My particular mating pair of cranes were hard to approach on the first day but I got closer on the second day after earning a little more of their trust. I was also more cautious the second day, moving slowly, waiting until they lowered their heads to preen themselves so I could inch my canoe closer. It was a game of patience, and I was all too happy to play the game. After all, the birds had an agenda, but I did not.
Sandhill Cranes are graceful but funny. If you get too close they will suddenly fly off in a bustle of wings and gangly legs, or they will simply walk a little farther away, casting a backward glance at you while they do. They would periodically stick their heads up, stretching up to their full height as they reacted to a snapping branch in the forest or a barking dog in someone’s far-off yard.
After grazing in the shallows and preening their feathers, and tolerating the snap-snap of my camera just long enough, my particular cranes suddenly stood up, faced each other and used what I have learned is a “contact call”, then abruptly took off after a short taxi down a mushy runway. The potential parents made a wide departing arc through the mist around me. Oh well.
Game over, time for hot tea and maybe a marshmallow, if there are any left. And yes mom, I know that's not a healthy breakfast, but thanks.
Thanks to the International Crane Foundation for the use of its information. To hear the sounds of the Sandhill, click the link to their web site here.
November 27th, 2012