Cranes of Sweet Marsh -
Photos by Kip Ladage
Kip Ladage - All Rights Reserved
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.