Aldo Leopold considered the sandhill crane one of his major influences. He wrote in Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy:
"When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men."
These sentiments capture precisely what it feels like to see a sandhill crane. The bird stands like a dinosaur, larger than a great blue heron. And the species is truly ancient; the oldest fossils of sandhill cranes, found in Florida marshes, are more than 2.5 million years old.
During fall migrations, places situated on the major flyways will see flocks with individuals numbering in the hundreds fly overhead on their way to their warmer wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. The birds are audible from miles away. It's a loud, rolling, trumpeting sound, produced by a coiled windpipe that extends into the bird's trachea. And on the ground, the birds are as impressive as they are in the air. Standing up to 4 feet tall, and with a wingspan over 6 feet, they are some of the largest birds found in the northern hemisphere.
The Pacific Flyway, one of four major bird migration routes that runs across the United States, brings sandhill cranes along the West Coast. If you are looking for an opportunity to see these birds up close, there are five wildlife refuges worth visiting. Two of them are within a stone's throw of Portland. The other three are on the east side of the Cascades.
Sauvie Island, in the middle of the Columbia River, is just a few miles north of downtown Portland. Sturgeon Lake sits in the island's center, and it is easily accessible by kayak or canoe. Sauvie Island is a wonderful place to visit year-round, and with numerous inlets to explore, Sturgeon Lake is a great way to see the incredible wildlife that calls the island home.
Directly across the Columbia River from Sauvie Island, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is an amazing place for birdwatching. Multiple trails lead through the refuge. Migrating sandhill cranes are just one of hundreds of animal species that can be found year round.
Sandhill cranes use Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge as a nesting ground, making it one of the few places in the northwest where the birds are visible for most of the year. On the eastern flanks of Mount Adams, the Conboy Lake area is mostly farmland, but the refuge itself has trails to explore, and signs in the area do a great job of sharing the history of how the area was preserved as critical wildlife habitat.
Just to the northwest of Washington's Tri-Cities, Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is split into two units, one along the Columbia River and the other further inland. The refuge has a variety of habitats, including basalt cliffs, marshes, wetlands, scrublands and farm fields. Four short hiking trails lead through the area, offering visitors a chance to observe wildlife and enjoy the varied landscape.
One of the largest wetlands in an area that is otherwise notable for its arid climate, sandhill cranes are found in abundance in the spring, summer and fall at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge comprises over 187,000 acres, and is 42-miles from north to south. Frenchglen, at the southern tip of the refuge, is the jumping-off point to explore Steens Mountain.
Want to learn more about sandhill cranes? Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent resource page on the species, including viewing tips, history, and more.
Oregon Field Guide is OPB's long-running local weekly TV series. The program covers natural resources, ecological issues, outdoor recreation and travel destinations across the Northwest region. This award-winning show is one of the most-watched local productions in the public broadcasting system.
Oregon Field Guide also extends the work it does in the field for the television series across radio and the Web, providing a greater degree of coverage.
Oregon Field Guide airs Thursday evenings at 8:30 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 1:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. In the Mountain Time zone of Eastern Oregon, the program airs at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays, and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays.