Picture Ohio! – Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane Family, Geauga  County, Ohio
Sandhill Crane Family, Geauga County, Ohio

A few days ago I was driving south from Burton, in Geauga County, after spending a few hours in search of dragonflies along the Grand River. I hadn’t taken a single photograph, and was about to write off the trip when I noticed a family of sandhill cranes feeding close to the road in a farm field. I drove a bit further, pulled over, and reached for my 70-300mm Nikkor lens, which was the longest lens I had with me. Then I turned around and slowly drove back along the road. By this time the three cranes had moved off into the center of the field, but I was able to get a few quick photographs from the driver’s seat of my 4Runner before the cranes disappeared over the field’s horizon.

The sandhill crane (grus canadensis tabida), is an endangered species in Ohio. These large birds, which can stand four feet tall with a wingspan of five or six feet, are on the increase in the Buckeye State. Studies by the Ohio Division of Wildlife suggest that 20-25 pairs of sandhill cranes, which can live for up to 20 years, are currently breeding in Ohio, plus another non-breeding group of around 20 cranes that live in the Funk Bottoms and Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Areas in Wayne County. Ohio’s sandhill cranes migrate to central Florida in late November, returning to their Ohio breeding territories in March. Several of Ohio’s sandhill cranes have been captured by Ohio Division of Wldlife staff, using a special net device, and wireless transmitters have been attached to the cranes so that their migration routes and ecology can be studied. Cranes typically fly at altitudes of around 2000 feet during migration, but have been observed flying as high as 12000 feet.

Sandhill Cranes, Myakka State Park, Florida
Sandhill Cranes, Myakka State Park, Florida

The only other Ohio bird that may be mistaken for a sandhill crane is the great blue heron. Sandhill cranes are large wading birds, like herons, but they have a red patch on the top of the head that is actually skin, rather than plumage, and long feathers, called a “bustle”, that overhang their rumps. Cranes fly with their necks and legs outstretched, whereas herons fly with bent necks and their legs tucked in. Cranes have grey plumage, as shown in the photo above, taken in winter in Florida, but they often preen by rubbing mud into their feathers, which stains their plumage brown or reddish, depending on the soil and the amount of iron in it. Young cranes, like the one seen in the Geauga County family photo, have brown plumage and eyes that are brown; adult cranes have reddish eyes.

Sandhill Cranes, Geauga County, Ohio
Sandhill Cranes, Geauga County, Ohio

Cranes are opportunistic feeders, eating fish, frogs, snakes, aquatic invertebrates, agricultural grain and other plants and small animals. The dragonflies I had been seeking earlier in the day would be tiny but nutritious morsels for sandhill cranes, which build their large nests in wetlands and engage in animated, elaborate courtship displays. The area south of Burton in Geauga County, near the headwaters of the Cuyahoga River, includes hundreds of acres of open marshes, especially in the Nature Conservancy’s White Pine Bog Forest and the area north of Snow Lake, providing excellent habitat for these impressive birds.




This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I’ve watched the birds on rapids road for years. I thought they would fly south but I ‘ve seen them all thru the winter for years.

  2. This morning Dec 18, 2016 I saw approximately 12 Sandhill Cranes fly over my home in Bluffton, OH. They were amongst several V’s of Canada geese flying in a broken line to the south.

  3. A pair spotted in last years corn field. Ashland county 3-27-2020

  4. Just saw a pair in Shreve swamp area in Wayne county on 5/10/20

  5. A trip to Sandy Ridge Reservation in Lorain Co. this past August.
    A very friendly Sandhill Crane! Walks with you along the paths

  6. Just watch about 20ish flying north to SW towards the sunset in Ohio. I could hear them for miles.

  7. Spotted a pair in a farm field in Muskingum County this morning.

  8. first time they have been seen here in Ashtabula county Hartsgrove. There 4 here for now.

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