Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area. This area is legendary for the numbers of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) that gather here in late fall and early winter. They are southbound from northern nesting areas. During my time there in the last week of November, crane numbers were reaching their peak. About 30,000 birds were estimated to be in the area.
The photo above shows typical land use in the regions around the wildlife area. Agriculture on an epic scale, and streams transformed to deep ditches. The Kankakee River drains much of northern Indiana, including this area. At the time of European settlement, there were about a half million acres of wetlands and prairies along the river's corridor. By the early 1920's, agriculturalists had managed to drain nearly all the wetlands and destroy nearly all of the prairies and savannas. The destruction of the "Grand Marsh" is one of the greatest and saddest tales of large-scale land conversion in North America. Mountains of biodiversity was lost, and the Kankakee itself was channelized into a linear ditch over its entire length in Indiana.
But the cranes still come to this ancestral staging area. The big birds are far more resilient than, say, Greater Prairie-Chickens, which were thoroughly vanquished from the state. A hard and inescapable fact in nature is that there are always winners and losers resulting from our actions. Specialists such as prairie-chickens, Regal Fritillary butterflies, and Prairie Fringed Orchids tend to be the losers when people more or less successfully bend nature to their will. Facultative opportunistic species such as Canada Geese, Butterweed (Packera glabella) and Coyotes are winners, adapting well to massive change. And, to a degree, the cranes are winners.
The cranes spend their nights in big marshes within the wildlife area and radiate out into agricultural fields during the day. There, they feed on spilled grain and whatever morsels these omnivorous opportunists can find. In certain areas, the fields are full of cranes. At one point, I was watching and photographing a group of them when something put up thousands of birds about a mile away. The din created by all those bugling cranes was easily audible from my position, and they created a semblance of low scudding clouds on the horizon.