The first time I heard sandhills call was years ago in Kittson County, in the far northwest corner of the state. I was in a hayfield with other birders. The cranes were coming our way, out of sight, the calls growing louder.
I was mesmerized. It was the wildest sound I had heard, ever. It remains so today. The birds might be flying over our neighborhood, hardly a hayfield, but the wild in that sound is the same.
These days you don’t necessarily have to go far to hear that call. Sandhill cranes nest and raise young in western Hennepin County. Two pairs of cranes I know of have successfully hatched eggs. Both nests are within a 30-minute drive from downtown. Others nests are suspected.
One pair of cranes continues to care for two colts (chicks), while the second pair has one. Two is the usual number. The second pair probably lost its second youngster to coyotes. Both of these sites have had previous nestings in multiple years, one of them producing chicks for three years now.
Madeleine Linck, wildlife technician for the Three Rivers Park District, told me that cranes have nested successfully in several of the district’s park reserves: Carver, Baker, Lake Rebecca, Elm Creek and Crow Hassen.
She said her general impression is that the number of nesting cranes in the county is increasing. The birds are often heard calling in the spring in the western parts of the county as they circle high over marshes, establishing territories.
While uncommon in Hennepin County, cranes are regular nesters in the state. Territories are concentrated in the northwestern part of the state, in the broad metro area, and in central Minnesota northeast of the Twin Cities.
A breeding-bird census conducted statewide beginning in 2009 confirmed 292 successful nests. An additional 330 nestings were determined to be probable, with 519 possible. Forty-seven nests were observed. (The census uses a scale of nesting possibility, with actually seeing an active nest at the top of the scale. Seeing young birds prior to flight ability would be confirmation.)
That five-year census (known as the Breeding Bird Atlas project) documented three successful nests in Hennepin County, one each in 2011, 2012 and 2013, each in a different location. Census work was done on selected sections of land; the entire county was not covered. At least one of the nests I know of was not included in those reports.
An annual count of sandhill cranes, conducted by the International Crane Foundation, includes Hennepin County. Claudia Engelhoff, Robbinsdale, manages the count here.
Asked about recent counts she told me, “I can say for my spring count area at the west end of Lake Minnetonka off Kings Point Road, the development of a large housing project over the past two years coincided with no sandhill cranes seen or heard in the large marsh across the road.” The birds had previously nested there.
And there it is again — the ever-present and growing loss of habitat for one bird species or another. Development in the western half of the county is significant. Cranes can tolerate a light presence of people, people who respect them and leave them alone. Push them, though, and the small numbers of sandhill cranes we have will grow smaller.
It’s encouraging to hear Linck say she believes the population is growing.
Cross your fingers. We need wild things.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.
Where to see cranes
The nearest location where you have the best chance to see sandhill cranes is Crex Meadows Wildlife Area just outside of Grantsburg, Wis., where cranes nest. In October and November, until foul weather drives them south, thousands of cranes will stage for their eventual migration. Dawn and dusk are the best times.