We are now past the halfway point of June, and knocking on summer’s door. This means that your standard, work-a-day bird migration is over for the time being. Everyone that’s coming back is back, and those passing through are through. Even the late-comers are nesting now, like the Eastern Wood-Pewees that don’t arrive until early June. But that doesn’t mean that the bird finding fun is over, because the wandering weirdo birds are out in full force.
I’m talking about birds with no hope of breeding and no business being here, like the spectacular Swallow-tailed Kite passing over Cuttyhunk last week and the Brown Pelicans that were all over the place for some reason about two weeks ago, with single birds seen at Race Point in Provincetown and Manomet Point in Plymouth, plus an incredible four Brown Pelicans seen in Buzzard’s Bay just off Dartmouth. Even an Atlantic Puffin, everyone’s favorite seabird they’ve never seen, stopped by Race Point a few days ago.
But one weirdo bird, or maybe birds, has really been getting folks’ attention in recent weeks. Like some awkward animatronic lawn ornaments, Sandhill Cranes have been seen hanging around in Cape and Islands yards lately. For some reason, these normally wary birds of far-away wilderness have demonstrated a tameness that would make a Golden Retriever blush.
One in particular that was hanging around yards in Chatham was a little too approachable, and eventually ended up in a wildlife rehab facility. The vets at Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable stitched a wound in the cranes neck and released it. The bird settled in near Barnstable Harbor, where it has been delighting birders and nonbirders alike since late May. Perhaps the same bird was seen recently in Dennis, Harwich, and then Chatham.
In my experience, the uninitiated sometimes refer to Great Blue Herons as “cranes”, but they are not all that related. Sandhill Cranes are imposing birds, standing up to 4 feet tall, heftier than a heron, with 6 ½ foot wingspans. Structurally they resemble the unlikely offspring of a Great Blue Heron and a Canada Goose. Their distinctive flight style, with quick upstrokes and deep, ponderous downstrokes, renders them identifiable at great distances.
And that call. That far-carrying, bugling call is startling and wild. Aldo Leopold, hero of mine and endlessly quotable author of the environmental classic A Sand County Almanac, referred to Sandhill Cranes as “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution…the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” It’s hard to top Aldo Leopold in describing a bird. Of course, they were on their way towards extinction in Leopold’s time – I’m not sure what he would think of this Cape bird that pokes around in people’s potted plants.
It’s hard to succinctly describe the huge, disjunct breeding range of the Sandhill Crane, as it spans from Alaska to Florida and even Cuba, where they’re resident year-round. They are best known for their huge wintering and staging flocks in places like the Platte River of Nebraska and Bosque Del Apache refuge in New Mexico, places where the cranes bring in a big measure of the tourism dollars at certain seasons. They made their breeding debut in Massachusetts about ten years ago in a couple of remote outposts of the western valleys. More recently, they moved in as close as Plymouth County, where they nest annually at a big freshwater marsh complex in Hanson.
Would they breed on the Cape? I doubt it. But it’s clear that sightings here on the Cape and Islands are getting more common as they expand their range in the east. So move over Great Blue Herons, there’s another big blue bird in town. And based on the behavior of the released Barnstable bird, it may be putting holes in your lawn right now.