The Bird That Wasn't There

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

A few days ago I was thinking about a very obliging Sandhill Crane that visited the Bartlett's Farm fields in April 2002. The bird stayed around for nearly two weeks and most of our local birders were able to add this species to their 'Life Lists'. But I was thinking, "Gee, we missed the bird last year and it's not here this year. I wonder when it will appear again."

I knew there must be something good out at the airport when I heard Jeff Mark's voice on the phone on April 6. He reported, "There are two Sandhill Cranes at the end of Runway 24." Now, I wasn't exactly sure which runway was 24, but Edith Andrews and I hightailed it out to Jeff's office. He took us to a marshy spot beyond the end of the runway near New South Road. Sure enough -- two cranes. I snapped a few pictures, but then they took a little run on their long legs and up into the air they rose.

Let me tell you a little bit about these marvelous birds. Many people refer to Great Blue Herons as 'cranes' but they are not closely related at all. Cranes are actually in the same family with rails and coots. They prefer to graze in open fields like Canada Geese and are seldom found stalking along the edge of a pond like a heron. They are large, long-necked, long-legged birds, so you would be forgiven if you became confused. In flight though, they are very different, keeping their long necks extended before them, whereas herons mostly keep their necks tucked up close to their bodies.

It wasn't until I was living in Colorado with the Air Force that I got to experience these wonderful birds. I was out in the flat, high, eastern part of the state and I heard a sound in the distance that raised the hair on the back of my neck. It sounded like a rolling, drawn out, staccato call of an excited crow -- " k-r-roo, kr-r-r-roo, ku-kr-r-roo". But it wasn't just a one bird, it was many, and soon I was thrilled to see thirty of these large, gray birds crest the hill in front of me and then fly past at an elevation of thirty feet, calling as they went. This sound pulled at my heartstrings so strongly I had the feeling my ancestors must have once lived where cranes were part of their daily lives.

There is a wonderful book by Peter Matthiessen called "The Birds of Heaven" in which he tells the story of all fifteen species of the world's cranes. Most societies revere them as symbols of longevity and good fortune. In truth, many species find their very existence threatened because their long migration routes take them through war zones, development, pollution, or other hazards. They require not only a safe winter and summer habitat, but also strategic feeding and resting areas between those spots in order to make their annual journey. They are long-lived, but typically each 'mated for life' pair only raises a single chick each year.

On Nantucket, this species is still considered 'accidental', indeed, this year's record is only the fifth, the others in 1975; 1980; 1995; and the one in 2002. We consider birds with five or fewer records over the past 50 years in that category.

So back to the airport -- the cranes bounded into the air, and then with a minimum of flapping, set their wings and proceeded to circle. Higher and higher they rose, apparently having caught a powerful thermal rising rapidly skyward. Soon they couldn't be seen by the naked eye and I finally lost them in my binoculars as well. They must have been several thousand feet up at this point and seemed to be drifting to the northeast. That sounds like a long way up, but Brolgas, the native crane of Australia are said to climb to 6,000 feet on a daily basis to escape the heat of the tropics and spend the whole middle of the day there, even napping in flight!

It seemed our birds were heading away. At that altitude, the Cape would be plainly visible and if they were heading north, that was the way to go. The birds were not there again. But surprise, surprise -- on the 7th, Lee Morgan drove past the Bartlett's fields and -- two Sandhill Cranes. Such a rare bird, we assume they were the same two individuals who must have doubled back and returned to our island. Perhaps the off-season rates attracted them. Several birders got to see them that day, but the next day they were not there -- somewhere else on the island?? -- New Hampshire?? Who knows??

There is so much to say about cranes and Sandhill Cranes in particular, we'll have to do another column about them, but not this year. After all, they are no longer there. So, when the bird that isn't there reappears, I'll write more about these wonderful birds.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.