Crane spotting

The stoic birds make Florida a winter home


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 1:18 a.m.

Like most Floridians, Eric Steg understands the importance of the state's seasonal visitor.

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Jonathon Rock, 7, of Suffolk, Va. gets his first look at sandhill cranes on his father's shoulders. Kenny Rock took his family to see the cranes along SW 23rd St. Saturday morning while visiting family in Gainesville over the holiday weekend.

ERIC HAASE/ Special to the Sun

"Our tax dollars come from snowbirds," Steg said, referring to the thousands of residents who make Florida their winter home.

But on Friday, the 59-year-old retiree took time to marvel at a more natural - and certainly more endangered - northern import.

As they have for years, flocks of migrating sandhill cranes are beginning to arrive in Gainesville and the outlying reaches of Alachua County.

Crowned with red and emblazoned in grey, nearly two dozen of the stoic birds could be seen strutting alongside herds of University of Florida cattle on SW 23rd Street on Friday and digging for nutrients and grain in the afternoon's warm sun.

"We come out here every year," said Steg, a Gainesville resident and self-described crane enthusiast. "It's a great place to see them - sometimes there are hundreds."

Sandhill cranes, the most numerous of all crane species, are native to much of North America and eastern Russia. Three of the six subspecies - the greater, lesser and Canadian - are migratory, while the Mississippi, Cuban and Florida are not.

Known for their distinctive, bugle-like calls, the migratory birds that began arriving last week in the Gainesville area are an eastern population of the greater sandhill. Since their arrival, hundreds have been spotted in the fields near the university's beef teaching facility, in Paynes Prairie and adjacent to farms in the southern Alachua County hamlet of Evinston.

"They are fairly traditional, and they keep going back to the places they've been before," said Steve Nesbitt, a crane expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "They are not going to waste their time in a bad location."

The largest cranes, which can reach heights of five feet and wingspans of six to seven, began arriving on Thursday. The greater cranes are expected to reach their peak wintering populations between now and Christmas, Nesbitt said, having been driven south by cold northern weather and limited access to food sources like the readily available grains on the university's cow fields.

An estimated 35,000 greater sandhills will winter in the southeast this year, Nesbitt said, making the annual trip from their summer nesting grounds in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada. The greater's numbers have remained steady in recent years, the crane expert said, but as development and urbanization rob the birds of their preferred habitat - upland and wetland areas - populations are expected to decline.

Only 4,000 of the state's non-migratory sandhills, the threatened Florida subspecies, remain in the wild. Across the street from the beef fields in the parking lot of Countryside At the University condominiums, Damon Rice, 40, paused from his maintenance chores to marvel at one of the world's tallest birds.

"They're peaceful, they're quiet," Rice said, a relative newcomer to the wonders of crane spotting. "They don't bother anybody."

Anybody, that is, except perhaps a handful of area farmers.

Nesbitt said the area's migratory sandhills have made a reputation for themselves in recent years as disturbers of the agrarian peace, eating ready-to-harvest vegetables in the fall and pulling up sprouting corn before heading north in the spring.

The university's cows, on the other hand, chewing alongside the birds Friday, seem to enjoy the winter-weather company.

"The young cows seem to get a charge from chasing them around," Nesbitt said. "Older cattle don't seem to care, but the yearlings - they think it's a big charge."

Greg Bruno can be reached at 374-5026 or brunog@gvillesun.com.

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