16,375 Sandhill Cranes have arrived just south of Chicago

Indiana's Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area is a key migration stop for much of the Midwest's crane population

One of the great spectacles in area birding is under way right now: the Sandhill Crane migration at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northern Indiana. There were 16,375 cranes at the site about 60 miles south of Gary last week, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“The cranes start coming in as it gets dark,” says Stephanie Beilke, Conservation Science Manager at Audubon Great Lakes. “The numbers keep building and building. We watch as flock after flock moves into the site, calling to each other. The sound of hundreds of cranes is overwhelming and beautiful.”

How did this phenomenon come about?

Jasper-Pulaski became a preserve in the 1930s. It was not until the 1960s that the preserve became popular with the cranes, attracting up to 1,000 cranes during the 1960 migration season, according to Allysin-Marie Gillet, an Indiana State Ornithologist. The management of Canada Geese at Jasper-Pulaski throughout the 1960s played a large role in this increase over the course of the decade, as it created more available habitat at the site. Beilke remarks that an increase of agricultural production in the region over the past century has created open habitat for the cranes, where they previously would have been forced to stop farther south in Indiana and Illinois where naturally open plains exist.

Today, Jasper-Pulaski offers preserved land amid vast farmed fields and the remnants of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, an area once so vast it was known as "the Everglades of the North." The cranes feed on waste grains from the harvest in nearby fields during daytime and return to the preserve to roost at night. Moreover, the openness of the area allows the congregated masses of birds to spot predators from a distance, making Jasper-Pulaski a safe roosting spot. These characteristics create an ideal pitstop for significant numbers of cranes from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada to wintering areas in southern Georgia and Florida.

Climate change and warming winters are changing crane habits, however. Some birds now remain at Jasper-Pulaski through the winter because of a decrease in the frequency of freezes and snowfalls, which previously prevented the cranes from accessing waste grains and invertebrates to feed on during those winter months, Gillet notes. With these changes, future impacts on migration patterns are unknown.

Dave Fronczak, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who studies crane migration, recommends witnessing the incredible migration while the existing pattern continues.

Says Fronczak, “You will notice the sound before you really witness the sight.”

Watch this 1-minute video of cranes at Jasper-Pulaski, from this weekend.

Visiting Jasper-Pulaski: The viewing platform near the intersection of Indiana 143 and County Road 1650 W is an ideal vantage point. The Fish and Wildlife Area is open, though the DNR recommends following posted restrictions: practicing social distancing and wearing a mask in outdoor public spaces where it is not feasible to maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

Special thanks to Georgie Lellman, a recent graduate of my alma mater, Kenyon College, for taking the lead on writing this piece.

The city’s puzzling approach to lakefront parks during Covid-19

“Well this just happened! Lakefront gates locked!” read the Park Bait Shop’s Facebook page at 11:10 last Wednesday morning.

It was the latest twist in the odd saga of Chicago’s lakefront parks during the pandemic, voiced from a business that’s served the area for decades. This time the gates were closed to traffic east of Lake Shore Drive at Montrose Avenue, though presumably visitors can still walk or bike in (and by Friday of last week that appears to be the case). I’ve been tracking the story, both as a former Uptown resident and as someone who’s making a documentary about Montrose Beach’s piping plovers. The city closed the lakefront to everyone from late March through early June to protect against crowds gathering and the spread of Covid-19. Then parts of the lakefront slowly re-opened throughout the summer, including harbors, the lakefront trail and businesses like the bait shop and The Dock restaurant. Then in recent times security quietly began letting people in with cars again, including many birders in search of unusual visitors like an Evening Grosbeak and a Cassin’s Sparrow.

The latest closure likely is due to the Tier 3 Covid mitigation steps taking place throughout the city—the Park District website says as much—but it still came as a surprise to those with an interest in the lakefront and particularly those whose livelihood depend on it. Stacey Greene’s family has owned the bait shop since 1958. She had hoped to keep it open through at least Thanksgiving as perch are starting to move from south to north on Lake Michigan.

“I really don’t have answers myself..I was locked into the place,” Greene said. “They didn’t even tell me.”

It’s hard to imagine the lakefront parks being a Covid hotspot in November. If anything, they may provide respite during the stay-at-home advisory. The day of the closure an angler walked into the shop with an Illinois record 9.68-pound burbot.

“It makes no sense,” Greene says. “Maybe earlier for the 4th of July, but the rest of it is a debacle.”

Birders interested in visiting winter waterfowl hotspots like Montrose Harbor, Jackson Harbor and Calumet Park may need to check for closures before traveling there. The best bet at Montrose is to park west of Lake Shore Drive and walk in.

“There’s really no rhyme or reason to this,” Greene told me. “I don’t know where this is coming from and how this has gone on so long without anybody bucking up against the mayor. It’s taking away taxpayer-funded land and picking and choosing who can use it.”

Where to look for waterfowl on the lakefront this winter:

Montrose Harbor and waters around Montrose Point: Several viewing points are easily accessible, and waterfowl tend to stay close to shore, particularly before ice forms.

Calumet Park: A nice mix of species most winters, viewable from the beach house and often in Illinois waters just west of the state line.

Jackson Park (Outer Harbor): Check out a variety of ducks from the cul-de-sac just past La Rabida Children's Hospital.

Double your gift to “Monty and Rose 2”

A generous donor has kindly offered to match donations for the sequel to 2019’s “Monty and Rose,” up to $1,000 between now and Thanksgiving. That means any gift toward the project in the next few days will be doubled in value. Make your gift here. In addition, we now have a limited run of Monty and Rose maps courtesy of New World Cartography. Proceeds from map sales also will support the next film. With your support, we can reach our fundraising goal!

TWiB Notes

Nathan Goldberg has topped the Illinois record for most species identified in a single year, with his 335th species, a Rufous Hummingbird seen at a feeder in Decatur in Macon County…Isoo O’Brien, a teen from Evanston, has broken the record for species seen in Cook County in a single year, with his 282nd species, a Common Redpoll at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary...What might be the first Snowy Owl of the season was found by Mike Bourdon at the harbor in Michigan City, Ind., on Friday…At least a few area Christmas Bird Counts are proceeding this year, with social distancing and Covid protection measures in place...Many local field trips have been scaled back or cancelled altogether, however, so it is best to check with trip organizers before your next outing.

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