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My Column: Sandhill Cranes Were Here

Sandhill crane 3-topaz

This Sandhill Crane made a rare North Jersey appearance two weeks ago.  Photo credit: Stephanie Swanzey.

My Bird Watcher column this week is all about the Sandhill Cranes that visited the Celery Farm two weeks ago. It features a quick interview with New Jersey bird expert Bill Boyle. He wrote the book on the subject.

You can read the column here here:

By Jim Wright

Special to The Record | USA TODAY NETWORK - NEW JERSEY

    When I got word that a rare migratory bird was hanging out in Allendale’s Celery Farm Natural Area earlier this month, I was 40 miles away. By the time I got home, the sandhill crane was long gone. 

   To add salt to the wound, I learned that someone had seen four of these large, elegant wading birds there the previous evening and had mistaken them for herons in the low light. I also missed out 16 years ago, the last time one of these cranes stopped in our area. Such is the life of a birder.  

    Doug Morel of Mahwah was the first to see and identify the crane this time around, at 6:45 a.m.  

   His reaction: “Whoa, what a great surprise! It was a terrific, pre-work experience watching this special bird probing and feeding in the mudflats.”

   Morel said he had already seen the bird in South Jersey and Florida, but seeing it here was a treat.

   I recalled reading in Bill Boyle’s indispensable book, “The Birds of New Jersey,” that the Garden State has a small, unusual colony of these birds. A flock in Salem and Cumberland Counties had descended in part from a mating of an escaped common crane and a wild sandhill crane decades ago.

  I caught up with Boyle to learn more. Here are his comments, edited for space.

  Where were the sandhill cranes in the Celery Farm headed?

  Hard to say. They have a very large nesting range from western Quebec to Alaska. Some also migrate across the Bering Straits to nest in eastern Siberia. There’s an isolated population in Florida and another smaller one in Mississippi. The breeding range has been extending east into Pennsylvania.

    How do you think they ended up passing through North Jersey?

    Most sandhill cranes are highly migratory. They winter in huge numbers in places like Texas, New Mexico, California and Florida, with smaller concentrations elsewhere. Like many migratory species, they often get blown off course by weather conditions.

   Are those sandhill cranes in South Jersey still around?

   Yes. During last year’s Christmas Bird Count in Cumberland County, the flock numbered 66 birds. In addition, a few pairs usually nest at Mannington Marsh in Salem County and around New Egypt in Ocean County. I believe that one or two pairs have nested in the Great Swamp in recent years. 

   What makes these cranes special? 

   Although sandhill cranes are not nearly as rare in New Jersey as they were several decades ago, cranes are a charismatic group of species that attract and inspire both birders and non-birders throughout much of the world. There are 15 species worldwide, and I have been fortunate to see them all. 

   I can’t speak for you, but I would happily settle for one.

   The Bird Watcher column appears every other Thursday. Jim’s latest book, "The Screech Owl Companion,"  was published by Timber Press. Email Jim at [email protected].