Saturday, July 31, 2021

A place preserved for the sandhill cranes

| October 18, 2020 12:00 AM

September rode the thermals into October on warm wings under fair skies. Windows finally inhaled fresh air into our homes as smoky skies cleared, giving way to a glorious Indian summer — weather to treasure — and I challenged myself to absorb more of the solar rays in the shortening days.

Nearly every day during that time I either hopped on a trail, a bike, or into a kayak — short, but happy forays. No longer able to slip in a morning walk/run before work due to darkness, now excursions have to kick off at the end of my work day prior to dusk settling.

One evening my husband and I took advantage of an opportunity to watch the West Valley migratory sandhill cranes come into roost after sundown at the ponds near our home. Naturalist and educator Denny Olson hosted a gathering for the Flathead Audubon Society out at the nearby West Valley Wetlands bird viewing area.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes pass through the West Valley on their annual migration from their summer home in Canada to their wintering grounds in the southern United States. One of the great migrators, sandhills can migrate from as far as Alaska and Siberia to as far south as New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Florida. They’ve been known to fly up to 400 miles a day.

Before sundown, a handful of crane enthusiasts gathered with Olson to observe with binoculars and scopes the cranes feeding in the fields of cut grain. There were at least 50 in one field and occasionally they would begin to “dance” as is their habit. Olson related that sandhills have a library of 26 dances they perform while pair bonding — bowing and tiptoeing around each other in minuet fashion.

While we chatted, we were entertained by a gauzy murmuration of starlings, swooping harriers (often called marsh hawks, I learned) and even bald eagles.

We heard the cranes’ frequent chortling and trills, a deep and resonant sound that, once heard, you will always remember. Olson explained sandhills can produce such a voluminous voice due to their 6-foot long tracheas.

With a wingspan of five to six feet, sandhill cranes are closely related to the dinosaur, as all birds are, however, the sandhill crane is one of, if not the oldest known species of birds. According to the International Crane Foundation a fossil found in Nebraska from the Pliocene period (5.3-2.6 million years ago) is structurally identical to the modern sandhill. And according to National Geographic a fossil found from the Miocene Epoch 10 million years ago was also structurally identical to the modern species.

Cranes mate for life and both the male and female incubate the nest. They prefer sticking close together within their flock, perhaps a survival mechanism, and often return to the same migratory grounds year after year.

After sunset, we watched as at least 150 cranes came into roost with much aplomb. At one point, a four-wheeler drove by them; they all rose and flew off with a great cacophony.

For me, sandhill cranes are magnificent — graceful, elegant and ancient. I’m delighted to live so near their flyway and grateful to the landowners, and to organizations such as Flathead Audubon, Flathead Land Trust, Fish, Wildlife and Parks and many more that collaborated to create the conservation easement preserving 400 acres of crane, waterfowl and shorebird habitat in the West Valley.

Community and Entertainment editor Carol Marino may be reached at 406-758-4440 or