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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Cranes, kingbirds make news in bird world

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

The sandhill crane has a way of taking over an open landscape or a clear sky, and in North Dakota, it has become a roadside attraction.

The world's largest sandhill crane is just off Interstate 94 at the exit to Steele, N.D., county seat of Kidder County, heart of the state's sandhill crane country.

North Dakota takes second place in the competition for the largest concentration of cranes, though. That title goes to the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, where tens of thousands of cranes congregate in migration. Alaska makes a claim, too, but their festival coincides with crane nesting.

All the same, crane migration is no small occurrence in North Dakota. The state is at the top of the migratory funnel that leads the continent's crane population from breeding areas to the plains of south Texas.

Minnesota has a firm claim on sandhill cranes, too. The birds are well established as nesters there. Recent records strongly suggest the cranes have re-occupied historic nesting areas in North Dakota, as well.

The sandhill is particularly emblematic of autumn. The birds are noisy, whether resting or on the wing. Many an autumn afternoon has been punctuated by the calls of passing cranes.

For the most part, cranes are fair weather fliers, choosing daylight hours and clear days for their migratory flights. Of course, conditions affect their behavior. Late migrants tend to take more chances, moving on cloudier days, for example, and sometimes even on moonlit nights.

Such a phenomenon occurred last week. Migrating cranes kept me company as I worked just ahead of the approaching low pressure system that brought rain. The cranes, like the gardener, were behind schedule. The peak of crane migration in our area is in mid-October, which is usually my deadline for garden work.

Cranes had been on my mind during the month, partly because travels took me past the world's largest crane on three separate occasions — only one in daylight. There stood the bird, all 40 feet of it. "Sandy," as the bird is called, has been there since 1999, having joined a kind of procession of North Dakota roadside attractions, which now includes the world's largest buffalo at Jamestown, largest dairy cow at New Salem and largest flock of geese in flight at Gladstone.

These are realistic depictions, but they are not real in any other sense. Instead, they are creative expressions of the wonder the natural world presents — and a way to lure passing motorists off the highway, of course.

Steele is not exaggerating its importance as a center of crane activity. Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge just south of town is a major resting place for the sandhill cranes. Long Lake is a 20-mile-long sheet of shallow water. It's easily reached from Steele, at its eastern extremity, or Moffit, at its western end. Horsehead Lake northeast of Steele is another staging area for cranes, though it is less accessible.

Both lakes provide just what sandhill cranes want in accommodation during their migration journeys. The lakes are broad and shallow, affording the cranes a measure of safety equivalent to the lock on a motel room door. The surrounding farm fields are the equivalent of fast food service for the cranes.

Just as cranes take over landscape and sky, they also tug at human imaginations, both for their size — among the largest of birds — and their habits. Cranes are faithful sorts, both to partners, offspring and nesting and roosting sites.

These birds are among the oldest on the planet. Fossil remains have been dated to 2.5 million years ago. Objects fashioned from bones of cranes have been found at sites of human occupation in the Missouri River Valley.

Thus, for millennia, their regular recurrence has made them emblematic of the cycle of the seasons, and they remain so in our time.

Notable sighting

Even so, the cranes were not the big news in the bird world this week. That spot goes to the thick-billed kingbird that showed up at Cross Ranch State Park, also in the Missouri River Valley.

Unlike the cranes, the thick-billed kingbird was a big surprise. Local birder Dave Lambeth called its appearance "a most unexpected record for North Dakota."

This kingbird is a relative of local kingbirds, including the eastern kingbird, which it resembles, except for the larger bill. Its usual range is the eastern slope of the mountains in Mexico, barely reaching U.S. territory in southeastern Arizona. "Wandering north is not unprecedented," Lambeth said in an online post.

The "ending of this story will not be a happy one," Lambeth observed. Like other kingbirds, the thick-billed is an insect eater, a member of the flycatcher family, and flies aren't available for catching in North Dakota in the winter.