For years, I have been hoping to find a pair of nesting Sandhill Cranes. They are quite common in the west country during the breeding season but their nests – usually tucked into the middle of a swamp – are notoriously difficult to find.
On May 31, a friend and I stopped by the observation tower at Medicine River Wildlife Centre. How surprised and delighted we were to spot a Sandhill Crane sitting quietly on her nest a mere 100 m from the tower! The nest location was inaccessible from the shoreline, but clearly visible and ideal for observation and photography from the tower, so I shared the location with a few other photographers.
While away for the following weekend on a trip in Saskatchewan, a visiting photographer advised that, on the morning of June 3, one colt had hatched. She was able to get some superb photos of both adults and the first colt on the nest sitting beside the remaining egg. Reluctant to leave the prairies behind (we were on a quest to find Burrowing Owls), we nevertheless decided that the crane hatching was not to be missed. So, we hurriedly packed up and sped back home.
We arrived at the tower in the early evening and watched the nest until dusk. The male did not show up, but we were able to see the colt jump around on the nest and attempt to clamber up on its mother’s back.
We were back at the blind at 6:00 AM the next morning, joined by a few keen photographers. We huddled against the wind and the mosquitoes, and our efforts were rewarded at about 8:00 AM when we saw the male amble towards the nest. As he approached, the female slowly rose up, revealing the second colt. One of the colts caught an unexpected ride up on her back. It stood up between her wings, let out a squawk and then tumbled down onto the nest. The male kept his distance, watchful and wary.
To our surprise, the two colts didn’t take kindly to each other. An energetic tussle ensued, with each trying to throw the other off the nest. The adults seemed nonplussed about the scrimmage, which eventually ended in an apparent stand-off.
We watched the new family for another four hours. The young eventually jumped off the nest and swam awkwardly through the shallows to a nearby clump of swamp grass, where they were fed by the adults. Thereafter, we caught only occasional glimpses of little rusty heads moving about in the long vegetation. The female returned to the nest a few times, once standing atop it as if examining something, but usually to dig through the vegetation for apparent morsels.
Around 9:30 AM, she returned to the nest with both the colts. After clambering back up onto the nest mound, they pressed their way under her wings and had a half-hour nap. By 10:00 AM they reappeared when Mom stood up. The three of them then left the nest to rejoin the male. By noon they had moved off quite a distance from the nest area, so we bid them adieu and packed up our things.
What a memorable nature experience we were privileged to witness!