MEDARYVILLE — Sally Arroyo isn’t a stranger to sandhill cranes. The 4-foot-tall birds sometimes stop right near her house in Homer Glen, Illinois, where they nibble on the leftover corn at a farm across the street.
“They land in our neighborhood, and they’ll walk right down the sidewalk,” she said.
But on a recent weekday evening in November, Arroyo saw more than just a few solitary cranes out for a stroll. After an 80-mile drive, she witnessed thousands upon thousands glide into the marshes and open fields at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just north of Madaryville.
For decades, massive flocks of the long-necked, thin-legged birds have made the Indiana marsh their primary stop-over location while migrating from their nesting spots in the northern U.S. to sunny Florida and Georgia.
This year, their numbers peaked at nearly 32,000 on a single day at the park in November, which is the largest migratory population east of the Mississippi River, according to Nick Echterling, the Jasper-Pulaski property manager with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“Seeing flocks like that, it’s pretty impressive,” he said.
The cranes usually start arriving in smaller numbers in late September. By the end of November, they can be seen in just about every field within a mile of the wildlife area, where they spend the day eating leftover grain. Most have left the park by late December.
The real spectacle comes around sunset, when the birds head back to the park’s 500 acres of protected, fenced-off property to hang out before roosting knee-deep in the water-filled marshland at night. It’s the same scene at sunrise, when the birds fly out for a day of foraging.
A SIGHT WORTH SEEING
On a cloudy evening in November, immense flocks filled the sky about an hour before sunset. Each crane used its 5-foot wingspan to steadily and gracefully descend and land like a Boeing 747 heading toward a runway. Once on the ground, they again congregate in large groups.
“They’re gregarious birds,” Echterling said. “They like being together.”
As more arrived in the fields at the park, their distinct, trumpeting coo filled the air and could be heard even as they remained too far away to see.
Some performed their iconic dance ritual, bowing their heads emblazoned with a bright read patch and then jumping into the air, sometimes even throwing bits of twigs behind them.
As the birds arrived in droves that evening, so did the humans.
Dozens of spectators armed with cameras and binoculars stood on a large observation deck overlooking the open fields to experience the hypnotizing vision of thousands of cranes spinning and swirling together in the sky.
One man traveled all the way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to watch, and others from as far away as Utah and Maine made the trek earlier in November, Echterling noted.
Nancy Wolf from Grand Rapids, Michigan, stood on the observation deck to witness the scene. She drove nearly three hours with nine of her friends, all amateur birders, to spend the day at the wildlife area. The trip was totally worth it, she said.
“How often do you see thousands and thousands and thousands of birds at one time?” Wolf said. “Not often, so this is pretty cool.”
THREATENED TO THRIVING
When the wildlife area was founded in 1939, it was rare to see even one sandhill crane. By then, the Grand Kankakee Marsh, the nation’s largest wetland that once made up northwest Indiana and attracted hundreds of thousands of birds, had all been drained and turned into farm ground.
As marshes around the nation disappeared, so did the sandhill cranes. At one point, only about 300 breeding pairs were left, leading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the birds as a threatened species.
But as environmental groups and state governments invested in restoring wetlands, the crane population made a quick recovery.
In the 1950s, fewer than a thousand birds were counted at Jasper-Pulaski. The DNR continued to restore and build up the park’s marshes, and by the 1980s, large flocks again stopped there on the migration south. The numbers have grown ever since, Echterling explained.
“It’s a really good conservation success story,” he said.
The federal government removed the cranes from the threatened list in 1973, but the Indiana DNR later reclassified them as a threatened species to continue to aid in their rehabilitation.
The crane population is so large now that the birds have started to explore other wildlife areas around the state, including DNR-managed sites in Greene, Jackson, Gibson and Pike counties in southern Indiana.
But for now, the more than 8,100 acres in Jasper-Pulaski remain the preeminent viewing site in Indiana for what has become one of the most impressive birding comeback stories in the United States.
And that story will keep birding enthusiasts coming back in droves, Echterling assured, just like the sandhill cranes.
“For whatever reason, cranes just really seem to grab people’s attention,” he said. “I don’t know why. But it’s a bird that they kind of relate to and just find fascinating.”