Sandhill cranes.

Spring has arrived.

Forget the calendar date. Forget the six inches of new snow that fell this past week and the dirty piles of old snow from early December that still haven’t melted. The sandhill cranes are back.

Sandhill Crane Natural Area near East Bethel, Minnesota, is one of the first places we visit as winter wanes. Three out of the last four years we’ve seen sandhill cranes there and heard their rattling calls. If we visit too early, the cranes haven’t returned yet; too late, and the ice has melted so much that we can’t walk across the marsh and lakes. Today we timed it just right.

In places the ice had already melted and refrozen, leaving molten clumps that shone in the sun. Snow hung from trees in loops and ribbons, caught between melting and refreezing. The almost continual clacking of the cranes told us they were back long before we spied the first pair out on the ice. As we made our way along the edge of the lake we spotted several other pairs, walking on the ice or winging through the air.

We walked through the snow, past pussy willows budding out, until we spotted the eagle’s nest we look for every year. Last year we looked and looked for the enormous nest, only to discover what was left of it on the ground, its weight having pulled over the tree in which it was built. A new, smaller nest perched in a different tree. This year that new nest was much larger, and an eagle, white head gleaming, kept an eye on us over the edge of the nest’s sticks and branches while her mate flew nearby.

The cranes, like the eagles, kept their distance, but their lacy, five-inch footprints left trails across the snow. Other footprints puzzled us—paw prints separated by eight or ten feet with long swooping troughs in between—until we realized they must be otter trails.

The ice was thawing under us as we made our way back to the car, having seen for ourselves that the cranes are back, the eagles are nesting, and spring has arrived.

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7 Responses to Sandhill cranes.

  1. Monica says:

    This is a fantastic idea and there are beautiful photos!

  2. Forrest says:

    Almost as good as being in Minnesota!

  3. Jim geppert says:

    Great photos Dale. Good reminder of how beautiful Minnesota can be. I need this right now. All I can remember is the feeling of tundra. :-)

    • Dale says:

      Hi Jim. Thanks for putting in a comment. Hope you’re doing well. Are you still in France? Gary Lynn retired on Friday and we had a party where Mark, Lori, and Branislav came. I was thinking of you. Take care.

  4. Linda Rasmussen says:

    What a great hobby! I know your main interest is flora, but the eagle’s nest got me to thinking about other wildlife that you might see on your hikes. In particular, do you ever see fox squirrels? (You knew it would be about squirrels, right? :-)) It seems to me you might see them in the wooded patches adjacent to prairie land.

    • Dale says:

      Hi Linda. I haven’t seen a fox squirrel for years. I almost always see gray squirrels where there are trees and sometimes chipmunks. At the Sand Hill Crane area we saw evidence of otters which I think is pretty neat. The eagle’s nest that fell was a huge thing. It was constructed in a narrow fork of the tree and they kept building it up so it was probably 8 feet deep when the tree fell. The new nest is also in a tree with quite a lean so who knows how long it will last.

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