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Jun 24, 2019 4:15 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Rare Visit By An Elegant Bird

Jun 25, 2019 10:33 AM

The “Sibley’s Guide to Bird Life & Behavior” describes sandhill cranes (grus canadensis) as “large, elegant wading birds with long necks and legs, and wingspans ranging from six feet to seven feet three inches … their grace and elaborate ‘dance’ displays have inspired artists, choreographers and biologists alike.”Many were treated to a closeup view of one of these rare birds that settled in the open dune heath environs of Napeague State Park off Cranberry Hole Road for most of June.

Watching it from my car on several occasions this month, busily feeding among the low-growing mats of bearberry and reindeer lichens that dominate this stretch of Napeague, I wondered what it might be finding so plentiful to eat. I assumed that this heron-like bird, as with the great blue heron, would prefer a high-protein, animal diet. But the dune heath environment is not one very rich in that type of food.

Back home, looking through my references for the diet of the sandhill crane, I learned that it is an opportunistic diner, preferring open fields and marshes to forage in, and often landing in farm fields to glean waste corn, other seeds, berries and tubers from the ground. I was surprised to see lichen listed among its catholic food items. It also will take advantage of any insects and other invertebrates as it probes the ground with its substantial bill, and small amphibians, reptiles and mammals it can catch won’t be passed up.

On one visit, after it had crossed to the north side of Cranberry Hole Road as dusk settled in, I ventured out into its feeding area and found that it was covered with ripening bearberry fruits. This seems to be the food item it was busily plucking in Napeague this past month.

Another question that came to mind: “Where would it roost for the night?” My assumption was that it would perch in any of the nearby pitch pines to pass the night. But, no, they actually roost on the ground.

Curiously, my 1962 edition of “Bull’s Birds of the New York Area” has no mention of the sandhill crane, whose nesting grounds in North America are concentrated largely in the North: eastward from Alaska to Baffin Island in the Arctic, and south through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

In the lower 48, breeding and nesting is scattered among a few Great Lakes states with pockets in a handful of areas in the Northwestern United States. There is also a small disjunct, year-round population in the Southeast—Florida and several Gulf states—plus Cuba.

An updated edition of Bull’s, published in 1998 and renamed “Bull’s Birds of New York State” to reflect its expanded geographic scope, does mention the sandhill crane as “a rare but increasingly regular visitant.” Most of these were upstate sightings; Long Island occurrences are even rarer.

Sandhills live up to 23 years in the wild. They form long-term pair bonds as early as 3 years old, but most pair and breed at age 5 to 6. These young, inexperienced breeders do not contribute much to recruitment; another two to three years of breeding, nesting and raising young is required before they are successful in contributing to the overall population.

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