Sunday, February 05, 2017

Sandhill Cranes,Get Em While They Last! ... A Walk Through Payne's Prairie.

Everyone who has ever been to the Alachua Sink entrance of Payne's Prairie State Preserve knows that this park is one of the very best places in the state to see wild gators, lots of them, in a short period of time.

They're just everywhere, and they're awesome... in a don't bother us, or we'll eat you sort of way.

Still, at this time of the year, they are not the big attraction.

That would be their dinosaur cousins, the Sandhill Cranes, or as science chimps like to call them,
"Grus canadensis".

Here is a little background on these Cranes courtesy of our very own United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • Sandhills are the most abundant cranes in the world with a population over 600,000.
  • There are 6 subspecies, ...Greater, Lesser, Florida, Cuban, Mississippi, and Canadian.
  • The Florida subspecies is nonmigratory, so while some of these cranes I saw will migrate north, the Florida cranes will hangout with us... these are probably the ones who walk around my daughter's yard and the ones who hog the sidewalk at the University of South Florida.
  • They mate for life.

How primeval is the scene above?
Am I the only one who sees a dino-dust up in that shot?
It's okay if I am, 'cause I'm used to that, but damn ...

I would have missed that scene if Sara N. Dippity had not guided me here to Jurassic Park, and left me standing on an elevated earthen berm in this freshwater marsh we call a wet prairie.

The situation ...
A day of science teacher training in Gainesville at a training center only a few miles from Alachua Sink made this a no-brainer. 

As soon as the training ended, I pointed the JEEP towards Payne's Prairie, 21,000 acres of soggy savannah.

Once off the highway, the way in to this park is through a residential neighborhood and you might think, "This can't be right".
Just hang in there, trust your GPS and suddenly, right on the edge of a typical suburb, the entrance appears.
You'll need $4.00 to drive in so have it ready.

You can hear the cranes the moment you get out of your car at the park entrance, long before you can see them.
The sound is constant and unique ... these cranes just don't sound like ... well, anything else in the Florida wilds.

I often hear them flying overhead at Pure Florida HeadQuarters, and usually they go sight unseen, but I always stop and look up, hoping for a glimpse.

But at Payne's ...they are in a crazy, constant crane cacophony.

The crane population at Payne's has dropped, but it could be due to milder winters and more abundant food farther north. They like corn fields and corn is not a major crop in this area... and certainly not on the prairie. 
The estimate this year is between 1000 - 2000 birds.

So far, I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands that congregate in Nebraska, but seeing that would actually be a reason to go visit poor oceanless Nebraska.

In the meantime, I will content myself with scenes like the one below.

Above, wild "Cracker Ponies" sharing the prairie with hundreds of Sandhill Cranes, alligators, bison, white pelicans, wild ducks, waders, raptors, ... they were all there Friday, even if I could only squeeze in ponies and cranes in this shot.

Payne's Prairie will never disappoint the visitor, but if you want to see and hear hundreds of cranes at one time, you should go now before the migratory cranes head north.

For most of my visit, the cranes were ground-bound, feeding and socializing.
As the sun got lower and the light turned softer, small groups of a few to a dozen cranes would lift off and fly over the trail berm to join the main flock.
That is how I left the prairie that day, a golden setting sun and constant flocks of noisy cranes flying over me as I walked out.
And yes, it was magical.


Ms. Moon said...

Yes! Dinosaurs for sure! Then again, I see the dinosaurs in my chickens and it's a true thing.
Beautiful, beautiful. These birds are absolutely magnificent.

Miz S said...

Oh I wish I could come down right now to see that beautiful sight. What a wonderful world.

Julie Zickefoose said...

What I wouldn't give to stand on that berm with you and drink in all that wonder. Two thousand cranes is my kind of crowd. Thank you for this beautiful post. I see velociraptors fighting, too, and dancing to the Zydeco Grus-Grus.



MyamuhNative said...

The Sandhills are already on the move!
While putting up nest boxes in the yard today (flying squirrels keep stealing boxes from the chickadees and titmice) I had several hundred fly over heading north. Most groups were 30-40 in each group.
They sure are vocal.

robin andrea said...

You are so LUCKY! I love Sandhill Cranes and only got to hear them fly over our house twice when we were still in the foothills. There is something about them... something that you capture here in these gorgeous photos. Such stunning birds. What a grand place to visit, not to mention all those alligators as well! Wow!

Anonymous said...

They come our way but hang out north of the city at some huge lakes. Thousands of all kinds of water birds.

I'm glad you took the opportunity to take this in and then share it.

Wally Jones said...

What a terrific narrative about a really cool place! We're lucky to have cranes that have nested nearby for several years and we get to hear that primal trumpeting every morning and evening. Last week we found a field of several hundred migrants near Lake Okeechobee. What a raucous, wonderful noise!

Thanks for sharing your visit to the Prairie!

Terry and Linda said...

Those are some great photos! Mine are not that excellent!