After hours and hours of searching, and hiking, and waiting, and driving...I went to Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana, which is about a 2 hour drive. I just found out about the place a few days ago, or I would have went alot sooner--ALOT sooner!
It was A>M>A>Z>I>N>G!!!!!! Anyone who is close enough, should really plan a visit. There were thousands of cranes, seriously! I had no idea what to expect, but it was so thrilling, it seemed like a vacation. You could see them for miles in any direction, flying in continuously...A photographers dream!
Exerpt from Chicago Wilderness Magazine: http://chicagowildernessmag.org
AFTER THE FIELDS HAVE YIELDED THEIR LAST HARVEST, chill north winds signal the time when greater sandhill cranes, Grus canadensis, head to warmer climes. From their nesting grounds in the northern Great Lakes states and provinces, the gray birds will set their internal compasses on a southeasterly course toward Florida and southern Georgia. Ten thousand, twenty thousand — and in peak years as many as thirty thousand birds — will stop to rest at Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, 50 miles inland from Lake Michigan near Medaryville, Indiana.
This seasonal mass-gathering of the sandhills is a marvel that attracts birders, nature lovers, and the just plain curious. The number of human spectators in past seasons has topped 30,000, with busy days drawing upwards of 200 visitors.
The long-legged, long-necked sandhill cranes depend on this wetland habitat for protection and rest, while the surrounding agricultural land in this still-rural region provides them with meals of waste grain, small rodents, and insects. Such large numbers of cranes may also choose Jasper-Pulaski for its convenient location along an almost direct line between their start and end destinations. They also seem to be funneled here along Lake Michigan, an obstacle they won’t fly over.
Beginning with their arrival as early as August, the cranes — which are joined by Canada geese, ducks, and occasionally even federally endangered whooping cranes — stake claim to Jasper-Pulaski’s 300-acre Goose Pasture, a field planted in winter wheat and surrounded by wetlands, where they’ll stay for three or four weeks. As early, smaller flocks continue south, massive new flocks flood in. By mid-November — peak fall viewing time — daily crane counts swell to 15,000, and sometimes 30,000 during warmer autumns. They congregate again February through March, though the autumn stopover yields the greatest numbers of cranes at one time.
During the daytime, motorists can observe cranes on the wing or feeding along US 421 and along Highway 143 near the main entrance to Jasper-Pulaski. The cranes forage the open fields within a ten-mile radius of their main staging grounds. They return to Goose Pasture around sunset to loaf and socialize, before flying off to sleep in the safety of the open wetlands. The birds’ trilling calls — likened by some to a wobbly trumpet burst — rise to maximum volume just after sunrise and again near sunset, the best hours for viewing their peculiar dance. In this ritual, one crane bows low and then jumps straight into the air. The pair will call in unison, and often one will fling bits of grass while jumping. Considered a courtship ritual in February and March (when the cranes come through on the way to nest up north), the fall version of the dance is thought to be more of a bonding ceremony between lifelong mates.
Visitors can watch from an elevated viewing platform equipped with three scopes. “It’s quite a spectacle,” said assistant property manager Jason Gilbert. “We have people who come all the way from overseas. Ninety percent of the total eastern crane population stops over here in the fall.”
Commercial hunting and habitat loss early in the 20th century — here and elsewhere — had caused sandhill crane numbers to diminish. Nesting sandhills disappeared from Jasper County after 1929, the same year Jasper-Pulaski became a game farm and preserve. But populations began to rebound in the 1940s, and by fall of 1967, the count at Jasper-Pulaski was at 2,500. No cranes were nesting though.
Beginning around 1982, thanks to enforcement of crane protections and efforts to save their habitat, birds began nesting once again in Indiana.
Today, an average of 2,000 sandhill cranes stay at Jasper-Pulaski through the winters and summers. And some that stay here are breeding. The nests are in remote areas of the 8,062-acre preserve.
All visitors must register at the sign-in shelter near the headquarters, where they can also pick up maps and information. To the west is a shaded picnic area and restrooms. Visitors should dress for the weather and consider bringing binoculars. The preserve is on Eastern Time (one hour later than Chicago). For more information, call (219) 843-4841.