It's a sure sign of spring. The elusive throaty trill heard high in the sky. And unless you know its origin, you just might think you're in the midst of an invasion by some kind of prehistoric creature.
High above, barely visible due to their altitude, it's a flock of sandhill cranes returning from the South, where they've been living during the winter months. Although the fall is a great time to see these massive beauties, the spring months also bring outstanding viewing opportunities as they migrate north.
The sandhill crane is akin to the heron, only larger. With a 7-foot wingspan and a height of 31 to 47 inches, this long-legged bird not only makes a call with a strangely prehistoric sound, but it also has prehistoric roots since almost identical fossils of the sandhill crane have been traced back about 10 million years.
Seeing the sandhill crane flying in a group, calling loudly, growing closer and closer as it comes in for a landing in a field of grain to feast, is a surreal experience. And there is perhaps no better place to view the creatures, which are a strange combination of awkward and graceful, than Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Medaryville.
Jim Bergens, property manager at the preserve, said the spring is great time to see the sandhill cranes, especially from the preserve's observation deck. But hurry, he said.
"We're probably at the tail end of the northward migration. By the first of April, they'll all be back North in their breeding grounds. They started arriving back at the end of January and beginning of February," Bergens said.
The sandhill cranes stop at Jasper-Pulaski preserve because, like any creature, they have habits and return each migratory season. They stop to rest and eat waste grain and insects and grubs.
After wintering in eastern Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, the sandhill cranes are on their way back home to nest in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, southwestern Ontario and southeastern Manitoba.
"The sandhill cranes have several different populations, and the ones in Indiana are called the eastern population of the greater sandhill crane. There are hundreds of thousands that go through Nebraska and migrate along the Platte River, and those are the lesser sandhill cranes," Bergens said.