Monday, March 25, 2013

Unhatched hopes...

The sandhill cranes couldn’t have chosen a tinier island upon which to build their nest, which now contains two eggs.

March 25, 2013

I’ve circled April 9th on my calendar.  That’s the day – or at least the earliest possible day – when the sandhill crane eggs will hatch.

Last week’s column documented the cranes’ discovery of a feeder made out of a recycled fire pit recently added to our yard.  Although a pair of the beautiful long-legged birds has wandered through our property for years, their brief ventures across our weedy lawn have always been to seek out underground insects and grubs.  Until their discovery of the new feeder, the cranes demonstrated no interest in any of the bird feeders hanging from tree limbs or attached to posts.

I suppose they’ve ignored the other feeders because they hang too high above their heads, whereas the fire pit feeder was in easy reach just above ground level.  The cranes’ attraction to the low-lying bowl filled with a mixture of seeds and corn kernels was intense and immediate.

One of several hanging feeders suspended too high to attract interest from foraging cranes

Located just above ground level, the seed-stocked fire pit feeder attracted the sandhill crane pair

For the two days during which the feeder stood in the yard (I eventually took it away because Florida law prohibits the intentional feeding of sandhill cranes), the birds pecked voraciously at the unexpected backyard banquet. 

Actually, only one of the two birds took advantage of the feast while its partner stood patiently by. 

Male and female sandhill cranes look so much alike, I was never sure which gender was eating so selfishly and with such an insatiable hunger.  However, considering the focus, force and concentration with which the feasting animal attacked the seeds I had a strong feeling the bird was female.  Not only female, but a female in reproductive mode.  I came to that conclusion after reflecting upon my own experiences.  I have four children and when I was pregnant, I remember eating with an unleashed appetite not unlike the seed guzzling gusto displayed by the fast-pecking bird. 

I assumed the crane was preparing to lay eggs and raise babies. 

I was right!

A few days after the fire pit feeding frenzy (before the station was removed), I looked out the window to see only one bird in the yard.  

My immediate reaction was concern.

“What happened to the other crane?” I wondered as I ran down the hall to tell Ralph. 

“There’s only one bird in the yard,” I announced fretfully.  “You don’t think the other crane got hit by a car, do you?”

Sandhill cranes mate for life and because of their lifelong commitment to one another, I lapse into worry mode whenever I encounter (which is seldom) a solitary adult bird.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” Ralph responded soothingly. 

After 41 years of marriage, my husband has mastered the art of “tone-ification.”  When faced with my frantic wildlife imagining, he instantly adopts his “everything will be all right” tone.  It usually works.

It certainly worked this time.  Not only was everything fine, it was better than fine! 

The missing crane wasn’t injured or killed in some highway mishap.  It was peacefully sitting on eggs.  Unbeknownst to me, the pair had built a rough bed of sticks and reeds upon a miniscule spit of land in the north end of the lake.  Since cranes share incubating chores, they were taking turns feeding.  While one bird strolled the yard in search of seeds, insect or other edibles, its partner was sitting on the nest.

The cranes' choice of a nesting spot is a spit of land looking more like a tuft of weeds than an actual island  

Female cranes typically lay one or two eggs that hatch in 30 to 32 days.  “Our” cranes’ nest (I have become quite possessive about the health and welfare of “our” birds) contains two eggs but while I’m excited about the possibility of seeing baby cranes again on the property, I’m trying to be guardedly optimistic.  Cranes have nested here before but they haven’t always succeeded in raising hatchlings.  If we get much rain, the flimsy nests, which sit only a few inches above the water, will flood when water levels rise.  Other times predators kill the young despite the male crane’s valiant efforts to guard and protect his family. 

But most of the time, things work out.  The eggs not only hatch, the colts (the name for young cranes) soon start following their parents around the property.  April 9th is only a couple weeks away.  I can’t wait to see what will happen!

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