Friday, May 15, 2020

Sandhill cranes

Just returned to Greater Louisiana from Louisiana proper, Jessa and I spent a March day in the central Platte River Valley taking in one of the world's great wildlife spectacles, the sandhill crane migration.

The cranes' day starts early—too early for us, usually—as thousands upon thousands of cranes leave the Platte River for the surrounding cornfields.

Waste corn from those fields, combined with ancestral memory, is essentially why the cranes are here. It wasn't always corn, of course. Once upon a time, the central Platte Valley was a vast wetland, and the braided river that the first European settlers would later describe as "a mile wide and an inch deep" provided an abundance of natural foods to fuel the birds' migration to Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. (Not that those places had names at the time...) Nowadays, there's less protein available—though the cranes can still pick off the occasional frog or mouse—but corn provides a concentrated source of calories, and seems to work well enough; after all, the migrations go on unabated...

With so many heads down, there's always at least one crane keeping a watchful eye out for coyotes and other predators. The sentinels are wary, and maintain a healthy suspicion with regard to the motives of other bipeds. (Cranes are not hunted in Nebraska, but they are elsewhere.) Responsible photographers keep their distance and stick to their blinds (including the mobile ones we call cars).

The sentinels watch over their flockmates during other activities as well. A fair bit of preening occurs throughout the day, and once again there's always at least one bird on the lookout in each group.

The sentinels are easy to spot, and their alertness makes them naturally the most photogenic birds in the flock.

Migration is serious business, but with so many birds gathered together, some socialising is bound to happen, and that can be serious business as well. There are acquaintances to be made and bonds to be maintained on the long journey, and the extended stopover in Nebraska provides an important opportunity for the cranes to visit.

Vocal communication is a key component in maintaining flock cohesion. The bugling of the cranes is a sound that has to be experienced, and the cacophony is one of the things that draws us back year after year.

And with music, of course, comes dancing—sometimes as the culmination of other posturing, sometimes breaking out spontaneously. I don't think it's overly anthropomorphic to read exuberance, even joy, into the dancing of the cranes.

Beginning in the late afternoon, and accelerating close to sunset, the cranes make their way back to the river, where the sandbars offer roosting sites and the water itself affords protection from mammalian predators.

Here, the socialising continues as the early-retiring birds settle in and latecomers continue to arrive.

Eventually, we suppose, the river must go quiet as the cranes settle in for the night, but by then it's full dark and we have gone...

* * *

Bonus pictures:

All photos © Mark & Jessica Farrell-Churchill

Monday, May 11, 2020


Lagniappe: a word of Louisiana French origin, with roots in Spanish and Quechua. "Something given over and above what is purchased, earned, etc., to make good measure or by way of gratuity." In short, a bonus.

These pictures (mostly by Jessa) didn't fit into the previous posts, but I like them too much to omit them altogether. So here are a few more images from Louisiana.

Starting on the North Shore... This first set were taken at Slidell; more specifically, from the balcony of our rented flat in Eden Isles.

[The twin-span (a.k.a. Frank Davis Memorial Bridge), carrying I-10 over Lake Pontchartrain, disappears into the haze.]

[Early morning, with "our" canal in the foreground, Pontchartrain beyond.]

[Black-bellied whistling-duck.]

[Dew on spiderweb.]

[Snowy egret hunting the canal's shallows.]

Moving on to Lacombe...

[Azaleas in bloom.]

[Spider lily on Bayou Lacombe.]

[Bayou Lacombe.]

[Live oak and Spanish moss. Lacombe has several spots like this, where the road divides to accommodate an old established tree. More municipalities should follow suit.]

[Laughing gull.]

...and Madisonville.

[Tchefuncte River Lighthouse.]

[Derelict. I'm sure there's a story here, but I don't know it...]

[Bayou draining into the Tchefuncte.]

[Preening ring-billed gull.]

[Royal tern.]

From our day in New Orleans.

[Ferns growing along the riverwalk.]

[Herring gull.]

[Double-crested cormorant. Or cold-brewed cormorant, if I let auto-correct have its way.]

[Wildflowers growing along the wharf.]

[Ship's hull on the Mississippi.]

And finally, southern Louisiana, at and on the way to and from Grand Isle.

[Another snowy egret.]

[Roseate spoonbill.]

[Marshes, with live-oak snag and boat-tailed grackle.]

[Tri-coloured heron, a.k.a. Louisiana heron.]

[Great egret.]

[Another cold-brewed cormorant. Damn it.]

[Brown pelican.]

[Mink tracks in the dunes.]

[Scenes from the beach at Grand Isle.]

[Beach bunny: cottontail amidst cattails and sedges.]

[Abandoned house.]

[Sunset over La.-1, a fitting end to our tour.]