First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 27, 2008)
If the response from Simply Living readers is any indication, sandhill cranes have a strong support base in Central Florida.
After an early December column on these magnificent birds, my in-box filled with e-mails from sandhill-crane admirers. Even now, almost two months later, letters and calls from crane enthusiasts continue to flutter in.
Many readers wrote to tell of their fond regard for these red-crowned beauties, whose grazing habits often bring them into close proximity with suburban neighborhoods.
"They routinely roost at one of the many lakes here in Heathrow and walk around our community as if they own it," e-mailed Ed and Ann Evans. "The Sandhill Cranes are a daily part of life here in our section of Lake Mary."
The column prompted some people, such as Frank Dressler of Leesburg, to present their personal birding insights.
"An observation that I have made is that these cranes seem to be mostly in areas where they feel the safest. Every senior community has them around constantly. We have several families in Highland Lakes where I live. You don't see them around schools and playgrounds where there are children. It seems they don't feel threatened in our community."
While many readers generously shared specific locations where hundreds of sandhill cranes gather at night for communal repose, others offered up words of caution.
"We too are 'passionate observers' and would love to see such a spot," wrote Leesburg resident Dennis Clayton, referring to my request for information about sandhill crane roosting sites. "But, publicizing their locations could easily lead to hordes of well-intended folks invading the birds' private spaces and adversely affecting their environment. We would urge you to keep anything you learn confidential so these wonderful creatures can enjoy whatever unspoiled places they may have left."
Not to worry, Dennis. My intention has always been to share observations rather than particulars of private roosting sites that are not already open to the public.
Several readers, however, did suggest places where -- thanks to park ranger supervision -- sandhill-crane assemblages can be observed without jeopardizing the birds' safety or damaging the environment.
Michael and Cindi Kay of Apopka were among many who suggested an early evening visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, where sandhill cranes gather by the hundreds at dusk.
"If you have the time, we recommend a trip to Paynes Prairie in Gainesville," the Kays wrote. "It is just south of downtown and is accessible via Paynes Prairie State Park, on the south side, and trails on the north side. The park will have this information. This time of year there will be hundreds, if not thousands of them."
Unable to travel to Gainesville? How about a visit to nearby Moss Park in southeast Orange County? According to Jeffrey Tillison and other readers, 1,500-acre Moss Park is an excellent place to observe clusters of these highly social birds.
"We were treated to seeing hundreds of the sandhill cranes and other wildlife," wrote Tillison of a recent weekend spent camping at Moss Park with 200 Scouts and their families. "They were so inured to human contact that we could stand within a few feet of these creatures. We enjoyed watching them play and dance around during low light morning and evening times."
My own quest to see where the sandhill cranes settle for their evening slumber led me to a site suggested by Minneola resident David James. James accompanied me to a private lake that does double-time in the evening as an avian landing strip. We stood on the soggy shoreline for about an hour as one group of cranes after another flew in, circled, released their landing gear and dropped down onto a grassy pad surrounded by shallow water. In place of a control tower, cranes that had already arrived called out what I imagined to be landing instructions to each incoming flock.
"Ground Control to southwest V of incoming cranes," they seemed to announce in their prehistoric-sounding croaky voices. "You are cleared for landing. Come in, cranes."
Swift came the reply, "We read you, Ground Control. Landing gear has been lowered. Prepare for touchdown."
What a thrill it was to finally see a sandhill roosting site and to watch the grassy island in the middle of a quiet lake quickly fill up with birds -- hundreds of birds -- as the daylight slipped away.
While I hope all sandhill-crane enthusiasts might someday witness such a sight, I know not everyone will be able to. Perhaps those who cannot will enjoy the next best thing -- sharing the experiences of others.
Many readers suggested a wonderful Web site posted by Robert Grover, a dentist and amateur photographer from Suntree. Although Grover's unparalleled pictures do not focus on sandhill crane roosting sites, they do provide with amazing clarity a close-up view of sandhill family life from nest to fledgling stage. You can view them at groverphoto.phan fare.com.
More information about sandhill cranes can also be found at the Web site of the International Crane Foundation -- savingcranes.org. Or, as Villages resident Anne McDonald suggested, in author Steve Grooms' "wonderful and informative" book, The Cry of the Sandhill Crane (Camp & Cottage Birding Collection, 3).