It isn't the foliage, or even the scenery so much that lures bird enthusiasts here. It is these - four foot tall, seven foot wing span, long-legged cranes. By the score. They are everywhere. Rarely, within the wildlife area, can you get out of earshot of the bugling rattles of the sandhills, and quite often groups are evident as they wing overhead. An estimated 10,000+ were present this weekend.
This massive mowed field is ground zero for the cranes - and watchers - at J-P. The cranes come in and blanket this place at dusk, socializing, reinforcing relationships, talking, and even doing a bit of dancing. If you've not seen Sandhill Cranes dance, it is an amazing thing. As part of their courtship ritual, an individual will bow, fan its wings, and leap into the air while craning its neck about.
A wee taste of what this field offers late in the day. All of those gray specks are cranes, but this was taken early in the day before the masses swarmed in. As nightfall sets, virtually all of the cranes in the J-P area are in this field, whooping it up. They only stay here for a relatively brief time; shortly after dusk flocks begin pouring back out of the field, headed towards a nearby marsh where they will actually spend the night. This field is all about socializing. I heard many a person that was there wonder why the cranes pick such a place to gather.
A group of cranes coming in. You'll hear them long before you see them. The hauntingly melodic rattles of the birds can be heard for at least a mile, and it's a sound that has been heard here for millenia. We are just recent spectators in an age-old massing of the cranes in this former prairie region that was witnessed by the very first humans to come here. I suspect they were just as awed as I was.
I didn't know much about Jasper-Pulaski prior to this expedition. Like everyone, I knew huge numbers of cranes came here, but not much else. After exploring nearly every road in the area, I understand the place much better, and know what brings the cranes here. Jasper-Pulaski is a former prairie, and a big one. It is loaded with relics of its prairie past, and is fascinating botanically. The cranes certainly have been coming to these prairie meadows for eons, both to nest and to gather in late fall. The above is a wet prairie meadow dominated by Northern Bluejoint, Calamagrostis stricta, a grass intimately associated with prairies. Birds, like these Sandhill Cranes, have their migratory maps embedded in their genes and as long as we don't completely destroy their habitat they will return to favored areas always.
This is a gorgeous example of an oak savanna, maintained by fire. The sandy low hummocks between wetlands are carpeted with oak trees, mostly whites and blacks. This particular example is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, but there was plenty of other great-looking savanna habitat around. Red-headed Woodpeckers, acorn connoisseurs of the highest order, were everywhere. Chattering and chuckling amongst themselves, family units worked the oak fruit hard, busily stashing seeds for the winter. Between these beautiful savannas and the rich wetlands in the low-lying areas, J-P is an outstanding place and I hope to return in June to botanize sometime. One can only imagine what this region must have looked like prior to much of it being converted to the new prairie - corn, wheat and beans.
Once darkness is nearly complete, flocks begin leaving the social field and heading north. They are making a short jaunt to this wetland complex a short distance off, where they will bed down for the night. By now, it is quite cold and just as the cranes leave in packs from the field, faster than they came in, so do the people.