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The Sandhill Cranes of Sweet Marsh - 

Text and Photos by Kip Ladage

© 2008 Kip Ladage - All Rights Reserved

Adult Sandhill Crane - © Kip Ladage

Over the past few years, since the sandhill cranes have been making an appearance at Sweet Marsh, I’ve been attempting to photograph the cranes at various stages of their lives.  Initially I was satisfied with simple, generic shots of the adult birds as they fed in a field some distance away.  Often I wasn’t close enough to the birds to discern details in their eyes, but was still satisfied with the images because we had not had sandhill cranes in the area before.

Adult Sandhill Crane - © Kip Ladage

As time went on and we became more accustomed to the presence of the birds, my ambitions expanded to capture “up close and personal images” of the birds.  With patience, planning, and a bit of good luck, I was successful in those goals.

Adult Sandhill Crane (Dancing) - © Kip Ladage

It didn’t take long before I challenged myself to create images of a sandhill crane nest.  Such a goal is quite an undertaking since the birds tend to nest in out-of-the-way, difficult to reach areas of a marsh.  Sure enough, a year or two ago I did find a sandhill crane nest, but I located it after the birds had hatched and left the nest.  That nest was in a secluded area of cattails and accessible only by boat or kayak and chest waders.

Adult Sandhill Crane - © Kip Ladage

Although my initial goal to create images of a nest was accomplished, I still wasn’t quite satisfied.  I wanted to create pleasing images of a sandhill crane nest with eggs and/or hatchlings.  The degree of difficulty of my goals increased substantially. 

This year, as in past years, I teamed up with a local angler to track and locate possible nest locations.  It was on the windy afternoon of April 23 that I received a telephone call from that angler.  “I might know where a nest is” were his comments.  When I asked for details about the location, he explained that he was seeing regular activity and he thought it might be worth checking.  I then asked how we could get to the possible nest and was told we could get close with a boat, and then would need to get in the water to approach closer to make the determination whether or not a nest existed.  Like I said earlier, it was windy and since it hadn’t been very warm yet, I was apprehensive about going in the water to check for a nest.  I went as far as suggesting we wait for a better day before we go in the water to confirm the existence of a nest.  But, as I thought about what I had been told and considered all options, I decided to go check out the nest with the angler – windy or not, cold water or not! 

We made a slow approach and just as he had said, the cranes were in an area of suitable habitat for nesting sandhill cranes!  I pulled my chest waders up and slid into the water for a closer approach to the suspected nest area.  My fishing buddy was right…the sandhill cranes had not only built a nest, but there were two brown-speckled eggs in the nest!  Obviously, I found it necessary to shoot a few photos.

Sandhill Crane Nest with Eggs - © Kip Ladage

I have a strong belief that I do not have the liberty or right to disrupt a wild animal’s life or activities for the sake of photography.  I returned as quickly as I could to the boat and we left the area of the nest. 

If I could change any aspect of this unique experience, I would have liked to have known exactly which days the eggs were laid.  Since we didn’t know for sure how long the eggs had been in the nest, we had no way of predicting which days to expect the eggs to hatch.  That meant one or the other of us would have to check the nest daily to monitor the progress of the incubation.  When we did check the nest, we didn’t approach any closer than necessary to quickly glance at the nest and confirm the eggs were still present.  

One might think that a simple passing by of the nest would be a simple concept.  That is true until you factor in the ever-present, non-stop winds that accompany every Iowa spring season.   This year was no different, which meant that some days I would travel to the nest in my boat while on the calm days (translated  = very early in the morning) I would paddle my kayak to the nest area. 

Adult Sandhill Crane on Nest - © Kip Ladage

  Adult Sandhill Crane on Nest - © Kip Ladage

Each day was the same…two eggs on the nest and adult sandhill cranes guarding the nest area.  After a few days of passing near the nest, the adults seemed to be more accepting of our presence, although they never remained sitting on the eggs for long.  As soon as I (or my fishing buddy) would travel past the nest, the adult birds would return to sit on the eggs.

Adult Sandhill Cranes Guarding Nest - © Kip Ladage

All was going well until the storm.  The storm dumped nearly 6” of rain in a 12-hour period and caused all rivers, ponds, and lakes to rise considerably.  Many, many nests were lost to the sudden high water.  Goose eggs were seen bobbing along the shoreline and I assume nesting ducks suffered the same fate.  Within a day or two of the flood event, numerous sandhill cranes were frequently observed together.  Before the flood the birds seemed to be paired up and claiming various sites around Sweet Marsh as their nesting ground.  My unscientific, gut-feeling is that all but two Sandhill Crane nests were lost to the high water. 

Since I was not able to check the nest on the day following the flood, my fishing buddy ventured out to look at it.  He explained that the birds were tossing cattails toward the nest as quickly as they could to raise the level of the nest.  Their work was obviously successful as the nest survived the sudden influx of water.  When the water did recede, the nest was 6-8 inches above the level of the water compared to before the storm when it was just above water level. 

 Adult Sandhill Crane Near Nest - © Kip Ladage

During the days after the flood I began to wonder if the eggs remained viable.  Had the time spent with the adults off the nest damaged the developing birds?  Had the eggs been cooled by exposure to water?  Was the time I was spending paddling or boating to the nest once or twice a day going to prove to be a fruitless effort?  I am pleased to announce that the eggs were fine and the time spent on the water was worthwhile!

Mother’s Day was another very windy day, which meant I wasn’t able to check the nest until nearly sundown.  Imagine my surprise when I went by the nest and noticed only one egg and a clumsy, fuzzy hatchling next to half an egg shell!  We had a sandhill crane chick!  The little colt could hardly hold its head up and was still damp.   Its egg tooth was still very visible.  My assumption is that the first egg to hatch was the first egg laid.  However, due to the changes to the nest because of high water, I cannot prove that assumption.

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage   

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

I went out the next morning to make sure the chick made it through its first night in the wild.  All was well and the adults were clearly taking care of their chick.  The strength and coordination developed in a few hours was remarkable.

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

  Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

 

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

That evening I went out again to see whether or not the second egg had hatched and to check the status of the first hatchling.  Due to a large-scale blockage of cattails, my approach to the nest was stopped.  I climbed out of my boat and kicked and pulled at the cattails in an effort to open a path.  While kicking at the cattails, I apparently startled a largemouth bass that jumped out of the water and onto the cattails and startled me.  

Largemouth Bass Near Sandhill Crane Nest - © Kip Ladage

Even with all of my efforts, I wasn’t able to open a path through the blockage, so I wasn’t able to check the nest.  Once again, the wind had caused problems! 

The following morning I paddled to the nest and when I reached the cattail blockage, I simply portaged around the cattails in my quest to check the nest.  The extra effort was worthwhile when I noticed the nest now had a second hatchling!  

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

The bird that struggled to hold its head up only hours earlier (first hatched) now was able to walk around the nest without difficulty.  A noticeable size and coordination difference existed between the two hatchlings and the older bird made every effort to dominate the newly-hatched crane.  As I watched the hatchlings I noticed how the older bird would peck the head of the young bird.  I’ve seen similar behavior between species that has resulted in the death of the birds.  In the case of the sandhill cranes, neither bird seemed to be affected by the rivalry.  As was the case in previous days, the adults did their best to maintain watch over their hatchlings.

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchlings) - © Kip Ladage

On my next visit to the nest both birds were now fully coordinated and able to move about as needed.  In fact, the birds weren’t even at the nest but were found moving in and around the cattails at their pleasure.  Both young birds were found in separate locations and both birds were observed crossing short expanses of water by floating/swimming like goslings.  I felt comfortable that the adults were taking good care of their offspring. 

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

Sandhill Crane Colt (Hatchling) - © Kip Ladage

As suddenly as the hatchlings appeared, so too did they disappear.  Instead of struggling for a while before finding the little cranes, my next visit to the nest area proved disappointing.  The two hatchlings could not be found.   I’m hopeful they survived, but I do know they faced risk.  On one of my early morning ventures to the nest I observed a pair of minks hunting/feeding in a similar cattail nesting area.  Hopefully the aggressive animals found enough goslings and ducklings to curb their appetite for young sandhill cranes.

Mink Swimming Away From Hunting Area - © Kip Ladage

Five or six subsequent visits to the nest also proved fruitless.  After more than a week without any sightings of the young birds or adults in the general area of the nest, I accepted that the adults had moved the birds to a more secluded and probably drier area for the next phase of their development. 

I suppose I should be satisfied with the experiences and the images I created from this event, and I am.  But I’m also somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t able to document their development to flight age.  Perhaps I will see them again, but maybe not.  That is fine.  I appreciate the time I was with them, as brief as it was, and truly enjoy the memories of the young sandhill cranes of Sweet Marsh.

Adult Sandhill Crane - © Kip Ladage

 
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