The Great Crane Migration

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  As we enter the holiday season, the birding scene in the Fox River Valley has undergone some dramatic changes since the warmer months of summer and fall.  The leaves have fallen from the trees and most of the birds that migrate south for the winter have left the area.  Some stragglers are still around though.  I’ve seen several large flocks of American Robins in the Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville just this week (December 10).  I’ve also seen reports of large flocks of Sandhill Cranes passing high overhead, heading south while they trumpet their distinctive and beautiful calls.

A Sandhill Crane runs into the wind and the setting sun in preparation for takeoff.

As the title of this month’s column indicates, I am focusing on the migration of the two species of cranes that can be seen in the Fox River watershed: the relatively common Sandhill Crane and the extremely rare Whooping Crane.

Thanks to efforts to restrict their hunting and to rehabilitate and preserve their breeding grounds, Sandhill Cranes have become a much more common sight in the skies, fields, and marshes of the Fox Valley area over the last decade.

An adult Sandhill Crane forages along a road in rural Kane County, Illinois.

In fact, the Sandhill Cranes have started breeding in the area. Formerly, their closest breeding area was farther north in the marshes of central Wisconsin.  While spotting these big, stately birds has become less rare in recent times, seeing, hearing, and photographing them is still a real treat for me.

Another Sandhill Crane standing among still green grass in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.

In fact, in addition to photographing our local Sandhills, I make an annual pilgrimage (or two) to a real mecca for midwestern crane fans. The Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana is about a two-hour drive away from my Fox Valley home. 

Sign at the entrance to the Jasper-Pulaski crane viewing area.

Jasper-Pulaski provides a rest stop for cranes on their long migration from the northern states where they spend the warm months to their wintering home in the southeast United States.  On my last visit in late November 2023 there were over 32,000 Sandhill Cranes present in the reserve!  

A group of Sandhill Cranes standing on a mound at the
Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area.

Occasionally, the rare Whooping Crane can be spotted at Jasper-Pulaski as well.  In fact, the goal of my last trip there was to find and photograph a Whooping Crane there.  I realized that this was a most improbable goal as the International Crane Foundation estimates that only 76 Whooping Cranes exist in the United States east of the Mississippi River.  My quest to photograph one of these birds is not as outlandish as it might seem though. Three of these amazingly rare birds, two adults and a juvenile, were spotted the week before my trip to Jasper-Pulaski in Kane County at the Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve near Illinois Route 47 west of Elgin!

As I was preparing to leave for a work meeting one Friday morning, I received a text from a good birder friend who told me that three Whooping Cranes were in the Muirhead Springs Preserve and were being photographed by several other birders as we texted!  A quick check of the time and my schedule let me know that I had just enough time to make it there and get a few photographs and still make my meeting.  I jumped in my car and headed up Route 47 with visions of Whooping Cranes (not sugar plums!) dancing in my head.  Unfortunately, when I arrived, a friendly Forest Preserve Police Officer informed me that the cranes had flown off only ten minutes before I arrived.

While I missed getting photographs of these “Whoopers” this time, a couple of years ago with an old cell phone I was able to get a very poor photograph of a Whooping Crane from my grocery store parking lot!  I had been shopping at the Jewel-Osco store on Route 47 and Galena Boulevard in Sugar Grove and was loading my groceries into my car when I heard the unmistakable calling of a flock of Sandhill Cranes that was coming from just east of the store.  I could tell the birds were low and close and were coming my way!  As I stood next to my car with groceries in my arms, I watched a flock of about 25 birds appear over the store flying right toward me in the parking lot.  As I watched the flock of majestic Sandhill Cranes approach in a loose V-formation, I noticed that one of the birds at the end of the “V” was slightly larger and white with black wingtips: not a Sandhill like his flock mates but a Whooping Crane!  I quickly threw my bag of groceries into the back seat and whipped out my cellphone and took a horrible picture of the flock that I’ve included below.

A horrible picture of a lone Whooping Crane in a flock of Sandhills over the Jewel parking lot! I need to get a good picture of one of these birds!

Since that day, the Whooping Crane has become one of my personal “grail” birds and getting a good picture of one with my good camera and preferably in a local setting is on my bucket list.  While it’s going to be a tough goal to accomplish, it will be worth it to me.  So, if you’re like me and want to see a Whooping Crane in our beautiful Fox Valley, when you hear the trumpeting call of Sandhill Cranes, look up!  You might be surprised at what you see.  Even if you don’t see a Whooping Crane, you’ll be treated to the awesome sight of a flock of beautiful Sandhill Cranes! 

Until next time, Happy Holidays and keep on enjoying the wonderful natural sights our beautiful Fox River Valley provides us!

Three Sandhill Cranes flew directly over my head at close quarters
during my latest visit to Jasper-Pulaski.

All photos taken by Tom Schrader