Right timing for scoping sandhill cranes: Evening at Jasper-Pulaski

SHARE Right timing for scoping sandhill cranes: Evening at Jasper-Pulaski
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A few of the thousands of sandhill cranes, photographed through a spotting scope,, at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.
Credit: Dale Bowman

MEDARYVILLE, Ind. — As we opened car doors, the croaking of arriving sandhill cranes rolled over us.

John Vukmirovich and I have settled into a pattern of making a trek to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, southeast of Valparaiso, where fall numbers of sandhills can top 20,000.

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This year, we picked Monday. It was perfect for weather, bird numbers and people-watching. The next couple of weeks should be around peak.

For years, I’ve recommended visiting Jasper-Pulaski around Thanksgiving. This year, that should be particularly apt. Migrating sandhills have become the great signaler of seasonal change around Chicago outdoors, noticed by birders, fishermen, hunters, walkers and leaf-rakers alike.

Also for years, Vukmirovich and I have gone back and forth on describing the sounds of sandhills. I stick with croaking; Vukmirovich goes with krooing. Cornell Lab of Ornithology (allaboutbirds.org) describes the sounds describes the sounds as “loud, rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds and often strung together.”

I felt especially good when Anne Heyerly of Eugene, Oregon, sided with croaking over krooing. We had struck up a conversation after she offered her spotting scope and showed me how to properly position my phone camera to photograph the sandhills. She said it was important to have coated lenses on the scope. It works. I had my best shots ever of sandhills.

If you’re going to Jasper-Pulaski to photograph the sandhills, you might lean toward morning. In the evening, most shots are toward or into the sun.

Speaking of sun, the flights stop at sunset as if a light switch has been flipped. I’ve been there in dank rain and a clear day, such as Monday, and the flights stop at sunset either way.

Vukmirovich estimated there were 7,000 on the ground when we arrived an hour before sunset, the recommended time. Our timing was perfect again. Wave after wave of sandhills flew in from all directions — except east, for some reason — until sunset.

Several dozen deer — no massive bucks that I saw — were feeding near the sandhills.

Heyerly may have come the farthest, but I saw license plates from Wisconsin and Illinois, as well as school bus from Oak Farm Montessori School in eastern Indiana.

A woman asked if anyone had seen a whooping crane. Whoopers are occasionally mixed in with the sandhills, though none on Monday.

At 4:22, a young bald eagle flew over. It appeared to have no interaction with the sandhills.

Another piece of advice: Be aware of time at Jasper-Pulaski. The line between Central time (Jasper County) and Eastern time (Pulaski) literally goes through the site. You’re not losing your mind if your phone time jumps around.

By 4:30 (Central), the sandhills were down.

It was time.

Vukmirovich estimated the total at 10,000-12,000, one of our best days.

Driving him back to the Metra at University Park, I said someday I’d like to see the hundreds of thousands of sandhills that gather along the Platte River in Nebraska each spring.

“Nah,” he said. “Then it would just become ordinary.”

Maybe not. The sound of sandhills resonates with me.

Click here for details on how to do the sandhills at Jasper-Pulaski, which is about 85 miles and an hour and 45 minutes from the Loop.

Follow me on Twitter @BowmanOutside.

On a good viewing day at Jasper-Puluaski Fish and Wildlife Area, dozens from many states pack the viewing tower.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

On a good viewing day at Jasper-Puluaski Fish and Wildlife Area, dozens from many states pack the viewing tower.
Credit: Dale Bowman

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