Monday, April 6, 2015

Where will the cranes nest?

I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I told my husband Ralph as I grabbed the camera. “I’m going to row out to see if one of the cranes is sitting on the nest in the reeds.”

The pair of sandhill cranes that has been raising young on our lake for several years is once again in reproductive mode. For the past few weeks, I’ve watched the couple — sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life — scout out potential nesting sites.

Checking out a potential nesting site on a misty morning

The Florida sandhill crane, Grus pratensis, is a non-migratory breeding resident of the Sunshine State. It’s a subspecies of the migratory greater sandhill crane, Grus canadensis, which arrives in large flocks each winter before returning north to breed in late spring and summer.

Flocks of greater sandhill cranes gather in a field.  Unlike Florida sandhill cranes, the northern migratory birds feed and roost in large groups.

All sandhill crane species return to the same nesting locations year after year. Their preferred spots are tufts of dry land surrounded by shallow water where they can raise young with reduced threat from land predators such as coyotes and bobcats. However, thanks to a rainy winter, most of the small islands in our lake are now submerged. With previous years’ nesting sites underwater, the cranes must either find another spot around our lake or move to a new lake.

This tiny island on which the cranes nested in 2013 is now underwater

Because I’ve grown attached to “my” birds and hope they’ll stay, I pay close attention to their search for alternative locations. I’ve watched as the long-legged, red-capped cranes have explored several soggy spots along the lake perimeter. In one of those places, they did more than just explore. They actually built a nest by stacking wetland vegetation in a mound surrounded by mucky puddles of water. I discovered their construction one day when I was out rowing. The location, hidden by tall weeds, is visible only from the water.

I felt optimistic as I pushed my rowboat off shore that afternoon that maybe the cranes had finally settled on a place to nest and would be staying on our lake. But my confidence waned as I stroked closer to the spot where I’d noticed the nest. The mound was still there, but no bird was upon it. Saddened, I continued on, rowing further around the lake instead of returning home as I’d planned.

Built but abandoned, a nest well hidden by the tall marsh grasses

It was a beautiful afternoon. Despite my disappointment at not seeing the cranes nesting, I enjoyed the ride. There’s something special about being on water. The soothing croon of oar strokes cutting through water combined with the warm sun on bare skin eased away my concerns and worries. Songbirds serenaded me from the treetops interspersed with the raucous cawing of crows. The farther I rowed, the more relaxed I felt.

A soothing row in the lake

By the time I entered the final lap around the lake’s circumference, I’d almost forgotten about the sandhill cranes’ plight. Instead of fretting over where they might raise their young, I simply delighted in the pleasure of being outside on the water on a warm and sunny afternoon.

It was then that I spotted the two cranes partially hidden in yet another section of reedy wetlands. Fearing that I’d scare them away if I approached too close, I kept my distance. From where my boat lulled in the water, I couldn’t tell if the birds had built another nest. All I knew was that they had not given up on our lake yet. They were still trying to find a place to settle down and raise young.

More than an hour passed before I returned home.

“You were out a long time,” Ralph said when I came inside. “Did you find the nest?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, “But the cranes are still here. They might be nesting on that spit of land that extends off the south end of the lake. I saw them there but didn’t want to get too close.”

In a few more days I should be able to tell. If the cranes have decided to nest, only one will be poking around the ground in search of seeds and bugs while the other stays behind to incubate eggs. I’ll also be watching from the water — a safe distance away — but eagerly watching nonetheless.

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