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In The News…

Green Eggs and Long Legs: The Sandhill Crane Story

April 1, 2004
Modoc County Record

By Lynda Demsher

Spring in Modoc County may be short on blossoms and long on bluster, but even if snow blows sideways and icicles hang long off the barn, it's spring when the Sandhills arrive, according to local ranchers.

Skirring in from hundreds of miles away, the proud crimson-hatted lords and ladies of bird land settle in and around the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge near Alturas to begin another cycle of birth and migration.

Where do they come from? Why are they here? The shadowy cranes, lofty and mysterious as they breeze by overhead or stalk through sagebrush on long, slender legs, leave many unanswered questions in the minds of their observers. That's why the Refuge, along with the River Center in Alturas, is holding a special event to help answer those questions.

Green Eggs and Long Legs: The Sandhill Crane Story, will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 3, at the Refuge. For the first half hour or so, Wildlife Biologist Shannon Ludwig will tell the story of the Sandhills, talk about the Refuge's efforts to band and keep track of the birds, then answer questions from those attending. The question answering will continue during a walking (or driving) tour of the refuge where Ludwig will guide participants to particularly good places to watch the cranes.

With a bit of patience, participants may get to see the oldest crane recorded on the refuge, a real survivor, who is 19 years old. Cranes have a life expectancy of about 20 years, Ludwig said, so it will be interesting to see how many seasons he'll return.

"The refuge started banding in 1984 and this bird is wearing a 1985 band," Ludwig said.

The old crane and his companions in Modoc are called Greater Sandhills because there are other, smaller varieties also hitting the flyways through the United States. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the varieties from a distance, Ludwig said, although few of the lesser cranes stop off here. This time of year, Sandhills are busy nesting on the refuge, re-claiming territory left last fall when they migrated to a milder climate in the Sacramento Valley. If a young pair comes in and tries to settle on already-claimed land, they are run off like unwelcome squatters, Ludwig said. The birds are very territorial, and a pair can claim, as their private reserve, 100 to 200 acres. With about 40-60 nesting pairs on the refuge, that means a lot of space is needed for the birds.

There are more nesting pairs outside the refuge in Modoc County as well, with some living in the hayed or grazed land of ranchers in the area, and others in irrigated meadows. The cranes love Modoc because practices here provide ideal habitat, Ludwig said.

"That's just one example where agriculture helps our wildlife here," he added.

Other nesting pairs have been spotted on Devil's Garden, and Ash Creek National Wildlife Refuge hosts many of the stately birds. There are also Sandhills in Surprise Valley, where "we hope to do some research this year and get a better feel for what's there," said Ludwig.

Although other refuges along the flyway may have larger numbers of nesting pairs, Ludwig says, "we fledge out more here." That means there are more colts, as the baby Sandhills are called, who survive to migrate with their parents in the fall. Ludwig will go into the reasons for that during his program.

Spotting scopes will be set up on the tour route during the crane event, and there is a good chance participants will be able to see some of the nesting pairs.

"The birds here are pretty well habituated to being observed; that doesn't seem to bother them unless people get too close," Ludwig said.

It is advised though, for participants to bring binoculars, cameras, preferably with telescope lenses, and wear comfortable shoes if walking around the tour route. The walking tour will be about a quarter of a mile and refreshments will be provided. The program is being offered free, as a public informational service, by the Refuge and the River Center.