Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Sandhill Crane's Struggle Against Mother Nature

A few days ago we were very excited.  We observed a pair of Sandhill Cranes beginning to build a nest within a short distance of our deck.  This nest could be seen from several windows and even closer from the deck.  I believe this pair of cranes are the same pair we see every summer.  We usually know where they are nesting and can see them with binoculars, but this year they were right in front of the deck.  They worked together building a nest and soon the female laid her first egg.  The eggs are quite large, and I had never seen one before.  The land they chose is very marshy but recently the water was drying up slightly and it was the perfect spot or so we thought.  They took turns sitting on the egg.  It was so exciting.

The next morning we woke up to drizzle and cloudy skies.  She was on the nest and her mate was gone.  As it turned out, this was their pattern.  They took turns sitting on the nest while the other went off eating or resting, I'm not really sure where they were.  They did spend some time together, but not a lot.  The weather started to get worse and worse.  As the day continued the rain and wind were terrible.  The marsh started to flood and soon the nest was completely surrounded by water.  She endured and sat for a long time until she had to figure out what to do.  She started digging for mulch and throwing it on the nest.  She continued for hours even though the water kept rising.  I was certain the nest would be destroyed along with her one egg.  She didn't give up and by night fall she had built the nest up to a point where she could sit down again.  The male crane was gone the entire day.  I went to bed that night thinking the nest would be gone in the morning in spite of her efforts.

When I woke up the next morning, she was still working on the nest.  It was still raining lightly, but the wind had died down.  By 8 am her mate had returned.  He wasn't very helpful at first but he did stand guard.  The day before, as she worked, a red winged blackbird taunted and dive bombed her.  Perhaps the blackbird had a nest in that same area, but I was concerned it would damage the egg.  It's interesting how gently the big Sandhill cranes can move the eggs around with their beak, but I wasn't sure about the blackbird.

At some point the female decided she needed a break because she disappeared leaving him to take care of the nest and the egg.  He sat for quite some time but when he stood up I couldn't see the egg.  I thought he had lost it and was going to be in big trouble.  What happened was the water was seeping into the nest and covering up the egg.  He started digging and lifting and rearranging.  Soon the egg popped up.  I was relieved to see it.  He started breaking branches off the trees and throwing them on the water rather frantically.

Then he would use those sticks to beef up the nest.  I guess he's the carpenter in the family because up to that point she only used sludge from the bottom of the pond.  After five or more hours of working, the male started hollering.  The loud sound cranes have is familiar to a lot of people.  I think many of us have heard its distinctive sound.  Within ten minutes she was back.  I could see her about twenty feet away, but she took her sweet time getting over to him.  Slowly she came back and went directly to the egg.  He left shortly after that, and she sat on the egg all night.

Come hell or high water, this female Sandhill crane was determined.  She laid another egg that morning.  She was trying so hard to make it work.  She was soaked, and we were hoping she could dry out as well as the nest, but the nest was definitely sinking.  She started working again.  She  was now picking up sticks to make the nest stronger.  She was working her heart out.  The nest was in pretty good shape as she sat down for the night.

The next day seemed like a calmer day.   Her mate arrived before 8:00am.  The nest was pretty soggy because the water on the marsh was still very high.  The Fox River which flows into our marsh had risen a foot in a twenty four hour period.  She left again for a while, and he worked for three hours getting it back in shape.  Then when she got back, he left.  She was able to wander around a bit.  The day was sunny, and I thought the eggs were warm enough.  She returned to the nest, turned the eggs and settled down.  The nest is still pretty low in the water, but she could stand on it and it supported her. 

When I got up she was standing on the nest.  Everything looked in order.  They made it through another night, and I really thought things were going to be alright.  She had made it through some terrible conditions already, and things didn't look any worse.  I was wrong.  When I went to check a couple hours later, she was gone, her mate was no where in sight and several turtles were laying on the nest with the two eggs including a large snapping turtle.  The turtles were sunning themselves.  I checked off and on.  As the day wore on, the nest was sinking from the weight of the turtles or it was absorbing water.  I slammed the outside door to the deck so the turtles would leave.  There all alone, looking like two baked potatoes, were the crane eggs.  There was still time for the pair to return, but they did not.  Soon the snapping turtle crawled back onto the nest and the eggs started rolling to the edge.  Before I knew it, they were gone too.  Whether it was the turtles or the high water that caused the nest failure, we will never know.  The nest never sunk completely and every day since a few turtles use it for a place to sun themselves.

I felt really bad.  It was an emotional roller coaster for five days.  It was the first time I had witnessed close up the nesting process of these big birds.  I was hoping to see the eggs hatch and watch the babies grow.  Every year I would see the parents and their offspring walk across my yard, but I never saw the hatching process.  Maybe it's not too late for them to try again elsewhere.  I will know later in the summer if the parents show up alone or if they had a successful hatch. For now, I have to turn my attention to watching some baby bluebirds hatch.