Mud Angels

Well, we are officially off on our exploration part deux for the year.  Just in time, it appears, as our hometown county is experiencing some unexpected high numbers of Covid outbreaks.  Not sure what is up with that, but at the moment, thankfully not something we need to worry about.  So far the birding has been a bit weak, however, I have been able to get a long run in on an amazing set of trails.  Told Linda it was like running on the set of The Last of the Mohicans.  Good for the soul and the long steep elevation climbs was a good reminder to the legs they are still in training.   As it is Flashback Friday, I get to pull from the front of the LIFO queue.  Meet today’s Featured Feathered Friend.

Sandhill Crane Wisconsin April 2013

We have been experiencing some unexpected cold temperatures on our exploration.  Our destination should be significantly warmer – in the meantime I have to keep reminding myself we are officially past winter ha.   While looking through the queue, noticed these shots that were taken in the same month and still had SNOW on the ground.

Sandhill Crane Wisconsin April 2013

Hit the jump to see a few more shots of the big birds

Back in April 2013 we made a trip up to Wisconsin to visit the Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  One of our favorite areas to visit in our sister state to the north.  I know they hate the saying, but it really is Illinois’ playground.  While we were on our way back from visiting the foundation, we noticed a group of Sandhills hanging out in a field.

Sandhill Crane Wisconsin April 2013

Now Sandhill Cranes are one of my favorite birds – their relatives the Whooping Crane (link here) holds the number #1 on the list which was the catalyst for us joining the International Crown Foundation and my renewed interest in birding.  Cranes are an amazing species.  Massive in size, truly a joy to watch especially during courtship rituals and surprisingly accessible at least on the Sandhill front.  The Whoopers will require you to travel a bit, but they can be found quite consistently if you do a little research on their wintering grounds.

Take note of the whiter feathering the Sandhills have in the shots above and contrast that with the browner coloring in the following shots.

Sandhill Crane Horicon National Wildlife Refuge Mayville Wisconsin September 2014

The shot above and below are from another shoot in September the following year.  Once again we were up in Wisconsin (time to play ha) and took a quick run over to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Mayville.  Absolutely shocking I was able to get anything in the tin as we were in an epic battle to save as much blood as we could from the hordes of Mosquitoes that had amassed there.  Think these were the only two shots that made it out of that shoot before our drained carcasses were left sprawled on the trail.  Per the earlier comment, you will see that these specimens had taken on a browner hue.

Sandhill Crane Horicon National Wildlife Refuge Mayville Wisconsin September 2014

This is where it gets a little interesting.  I have always been under the impression that the Sandhill Cranes get this browner coloring thanks to their habit of preening themselves with mud/dirt.  The iron rich material causes the iconic “rustic” coloring.  Went to Cornell for a quick validation and was surprised to find zero mention of that behavior nor the effects on the feathers – nada.

Sandhill Crane Chain O' Lakes State Park, Spring Grove IL April 2017

Cornell did mention juveniles are grey and rusty brown and lack the pale cheeks and red caps.  I have had the opportunity to see juveniles up close and can confirm grey and there was some rusty brown, however, it doesn’t really dismiss the preening concept as surely the adults would teach the offspring similar behaviors.. resulting in similar color changes.

Sandhill Crane Chain O' Lakes State Park, Spring Grove IL April 2017

Step inside my supercharged DeLorean and rev it up to April 2017.  This last set of Sandhill Shots (starting with the two shots above) comes to you from Chain O’ Lakes State Park near Spring Grove IL.   No snow on the ground this time and you can see the rust coloring just starting to cover the wings above.  Now the specimen below must have been making mud angels.

Sandhill Crane Chain O' Lakes State Park, Spring Grove IL April 2017

Better get to closing this post out – tomorrow has some traveling in it.  Sandhills mate for life and can begin breeding as early as two.  Every year we have been up at Chain O’ Lakes we have seen the same pair of Sandhills wandering the campground area.  Usually with a couple of colts which makes for some great shoots (link here).

Sandhill Crane Chain O' Lakes State Park, Spring Grove IL April 2017

Lastly, I was surprised when I looked at the region maps for the Sandhill.  Seems like I see them everywhere we travel and therefore wrongly thought they were abundant across the states.  Not true.  There is a heavy wintering population in the lower Texas, New Mexico and Florida regions.  From those areas there are really two large migration paths up to their breeding grounds in are fairly straight migrations paths to their breeding grounds in Canada and the upper states (except Montana – they HATE Montana thanks to a long standing feud with the Bison union).

Sandhill Crane Chain O' Lakes State Park, Spring Grove IL April 2017

Will let you go there.  Hope you enjoyed a few shots of the big boys (and likely girls).  Hopefully will have connectivity to put up a few more posts while out on the road.  Until then, take it easy and be sure you live and not just exist.

11 thoughts on “Mud Angels”

  1. Nice shots, Brian! I don’t understand the gray vs. brown coloring on Sandhill Cranes at all. But they are really interesting birds, and both parents take very good care of their colts. Someday I’ll see a Whooping Crane–whenever flocks of Sandhills fly over I grab my binoculars and camera because very occasionally they will be joined by a Whooper or two, which are easily distinguished by their white bodies and black-tipped wings. Someday, Brian, someday.

    Ron

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    1. Wow, don’t even think the ink was dried on that post before you commented! I need to do some digging on the coloring – you would think this would be better explained on Cornell’s site, but this is the first time I’ve been less than impressed with their coverage and I am sure it won’t be the last. I think we need a ruling on this whole accidental Whooper shot thing. Seems a bit sketchy if you ask me. Seems similar to say standing on the banks of Acadia National Park, taking a picture out towards the islands and claiming you have a Puffin hehehe.

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    1. Definitely the case if that understanding holds true (currently researching for final confirmation). Guessing some of those Cranes departing there will end up near me. The ones at Chain O’ Lakes typically have tags on them – will make a point to register the tags I find and see where they’ve been. Thanks for dropping in Timothy, appreciate it.

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    1. Yep, we have that on our to-do list along with launch at Bosque. Put that further down the road as I already have this bird checked on the list – I need to get back to Acadia (Puffins) and Arizona (Hummers) in order to get some new checks on the list first. Thanks for dropping in Brad – heard the hometown is expecting snow in a few days ugh!

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  2. I’m flummoxed. I’ve done lots of google searches trying to find references to sandhills dying their feathers… and come up empty. I know that the color of birds’ feathers can reflect their diet (e.g., spoonies eating crustaceans containing carotenoids, producing their vibrant pink color), so I’m wondering if the rust coloration might be dietary, rather than the surface application of mud? Great research topic!

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    1. Right there with you, I was struggling to get a source I trusted to confirm my long-held understanding. I did find this at https://askinglot.com/do-sandhill-cranes-change-color There it stated “Regarding this, what color are cranes?
      Adult cranes have grey feathers. They paint them with iron-laden mud and vegetation to turn them rust-color for camouflage during breeding season.” Definitely have my reservations on that statement as a whole, but does back up the external catalyst. Later in that same response they had this “Although the feathers are gray, sometimes they can have a reddish-brown appearance. This is because sandhill cranes preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers and mud from iron-rich environments is often red.” which does align the initial theory. Decided to go back to the Crane foundation organization we belong to at https://www.savingcranes.org/report-a-banded-crane/ (not sure why I didn’t think of that in the first place). “Body plumage is characterized by varying shades of gray. In many areas, wild Sandhill Cranes preen iron-rich mud into their feathers, creating a deep rusty brown color that lasts during spring and summer. As fall advances, these rusty feathers molt and the birds return to their grayish appearance. In some regions, however, iron-rich mud is absent and the birds appear gray all year.” The diet thought is definitely a valid call (some of those Spoonies OD on those carotenoids to the point they are practically glowing ha), but I think in this case it is externally caused. Really appreciate you dropping in Sam and sharing your thoughts. Always good to have a sounding board.

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  3. Sandhill cranes are one of my favorites too! We never (1970’s) had or saw them in Northern Minnesota. First ones I ever heard (1st) saw (2nd) was in Yellowstone in the late 80’s. Flash forward to 2005 and there was a pair that nested close to my parents farm in N MN. Awesome to watch! I love that one photo towards the end of the flight. They are very graceful.

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    1. They definitely seems to be making a come back. Almost a guarantee these days to see them hanging out at Chain O’ Lakes State Park up in Spring Grove IL and then there’s plenty of them for sure in Wisconsin. Fun to watch, but can be a bit startling if you have never heard them call ha! Thanks for dropping in CJ and apologies for the late response – experiencing fallout where we are at and it is taking all my time hehehe.

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