Sandhill Cranes Becoming Regular Visitors to Region

This sandhill crane has spent the winter hanging out in Tiverton, R.I. These birds don’t typically winter in the Northeast. (Butch Lombardi/for Audubon Society of Rhode Island)

This sandhill crane has spent the winter hanging out in Tiverton, R.I. These birds don’t typically winter in the Northeast. (Butch Lombardi/for Audubon Society of Rhode Island)

By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor

TIVERTON, R.I. — If you happen to spot a 4-foot tall, gray bird this winter, you’re not alone in thinking that it looks out of place. A lone sandhill crane has spent the entire winter in fields around Seapowet Marsh, and the bird has drawn considerable attention from birdwatchers and other sharp-eyed observers.

First spotted in October, it has been seen in the vicinity almost every day for more than four months.

Sandhill cranes are common birds in the western United States and Canada. They breed in the tundra and prairie regions of Canada and Alaska, as well as in a few scattered locations in the Rocky Mountains. They migrate south in large numbers to winter in California, New Mexico and Texas. A non-migratory flock lives year-round in central Florida.

Cranes may have been common migrants through the Northeast in the 17th and 18th centuries, but not in the last century or so. They are prone to wander, however, especially in the fall, and in recent decades small numbers have been observed along the East Coast, including in Rhode Island, where every few years a bird or two has stopped off for a few days or migrated through the region.

But, according to Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Bird Records Committee, the birds have become annual visitors in the past five or six years and are staying for longer and longer periods.

Farrell said the increasing frequency of sandhill cranes in the Ocean State probably has to do with the species’ eastward range expansion. Cranes were reported breeding for the first time in Pennsylvania in 1998, Maine in 2000, Vermont in 2002, New York in 2003, Massachusetts in 2007 and New Hampshire in 2014. Cranes are not yet confirmed breeders in Rhode Island, though there is speculation that a pair spent last summer on private property in West Greenwich, where access to birdwatchers was prohibited.

Scientists believe there were fewer than 20 breeding pairs in all of New England during the past few years. Observers tracked a flock of 29 sandhill cranes — both adults and young — traveling through five states in the Northeast during a one-week period in November 2014, beginning in Maine and ending in eastern Pennsylvania. This may have been the first documentation of the migratory route of cranes nesting in northern New England. Small numbers of cranes have also been seen regularly during migration at the cranberry bogs in Carver, Mass.

But records of sandhill cranes breeding in and migrating through the region doesn’t make this winter’s observation of the bird in Tiverton any less remarkable. While they can survive challenging environmental conditions, they typically spend the winter more than 1,000 miles south of Rhode Island, in a much warmer climate.

“They’re hardy birds, but staying the whole winter is unusual,” said Farrell, who speculates that the Tiverton bird is probably one of those that breeds somewhere in northern New England. “It’s likely a local bird, but no one can really say for sure.”

Peter Paton, an ornithologist and professor of natural resources science at the University of Rhode Island, noted that “they’re long-distance migrants, so this bird may be a bird that strayed from its normal route, which happens sometimes. It’s like it short-stopped its migration and decided to stay.”

Paton recalled a similar situation two years ago near the URI Kingston campus, when a sandhill crane, which may have been injured, was observed for most of the winter feeding in a cornfield off Route 138. Late in the season, it was joined by a second bird before they both left.

Is it likely that the sandhill crane in Tiverton will eventually find other cranes and breed, or is this bird destined for a solitary life unconnected to others of its species?

Paton is optimistic.

“I thought the bird in Kingston was never going to find anybody, but sure enough another bird showed up and they left together,” he said. “As cranes become more and more common in the region, the chances are greater that they’ll find others of their species and not be loners for the rest of their life.

“There aren’t a ton of cranes in this neck of the woods, so it’s amazing how they find each other. It’s one of the mysteries of nature.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.