Wendy Howes and Alan F. Rawle
Sandhill Cranes in Hardwick May 18, 2020. All Photographs by Alan F. Rawle.
The stately appearance and large size of Sandhill Cranes make them stand out impressively in the landscape or open sky. Accordingly, reports of this species in the state have been intermittent but highly accurate since at least the 1990s. Migrant groups of up to six or more birds have been reported, and individual birds or pairs have stayed around some localities for weeks, promoting speculation as to breeding status. The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2 comments, "A breeding-season sighting in the Worcester Plateau region also suggested that Sandhill Cranes were also prospecting in other areas in the Commonwealth. Wet meadows with abundant agricultural grain should be closely watched in the coming years, especially those in the western part of the state."
Breeding has been reported in the western part of the state, although photographic evidence is scant, and pictures tend to show adult birds with juveniles about two feet tall. Reported sightings of Sandhill Cranes have become increasingly common in Worcester County, especially since eBird rolled out its reporting platform. Central Worcester County sightings in the Hardwick area in 2018 that occurred only in April, October, and November (as late as November 15) suggested migrants. In 2019, cranes were observed from South Barre to Hardwick intermittently from April 7 to October 12—dates that encompassed the breeding season. One pair consistently present in a contiguous series of pastures and hayfields in Hardwick, admired by us and many other observers, lent hope to the possibility that they might nest in one of many nearby wetland marshes. The immediate region seems well-suited for nesting by Sandhill Cranes.
Where we live, on the west side of Hardwick close to the Quabbin Reservation, many prior crane sightings likely have been overlooked due to the vast amount of open land and scarcity of bird observers. The species has occasionally been noted on Quabbin property, and on April 20, 2018, Wendy saw two in flight—within reservation boundaries—about two miles from where this year's breeding pair ended up. On April 24, 2020, we were treated to an intriguing dusk flyover of a single bird close to home. Then on the morning of May 16, one crane unexpectedly flew low over our backyard.
Sandhill Cranes in Hardwick May 18, 2020.
On May 17, a neighbor described observing a pair of adults with two small chicks at his family property. Behind the property is an 85-plus acre expanse of beaver-influenced wetland and shrubby marsh, an ideal crane nesting site. The next day he saw the foursome foraging in a large field at a different location about one-quarter mile away, as the crane walks. The cranes had found an open expanse of field adjacent to another wetland pond. There we were excited to see two precocial young that seemed to be only a few days old accompanying the adults. Alan obtained initial documentation photos, and the following evening, May 19, he returned to the property and recorded the family group.
On May 20, the owner of the open field and marsh observed all four around mid-morning. Cranes were not present in the evening. Following these initial encounters, we entered into a prolonged period of playing hide-and-seek with this family group.
Given that usually only one young bird survives to fledge and that chicks remain with the parents for nine to ten months, we decided to try documenting the nesting outcome and survival of one or both young birds. Although we speculated about the 85-acre wetland being the right place to search, access is difficult, time-consuming, and private. It wasn't until June 14 that we were able to get to an observation spot to check that site. Sure enough, both adult cranes were there. The shrubby vegetation was dense; if the young were present, they still would be too small to be visible from the observation point.
On June 15 at 6:00 pm, we again located and observed only the two adults foraging in the same wetland. We had just received the belated, tantalizing second-hand news that all four birds had been foraging in yet another private yard one day around June 5. This encouraged us to spend a long time watching the adult birds. It was frustrating that the pair managed to keep the lower parts of their bodies and young, if any, mostly obscured, but we had several opportunities to see around the legs of the adults and beyond. No young were seen. Speculating that the offspring might be farther away from the parent birds or hidden away waiting for the adults—wishful thinking—we watched the adults closely for nearly an hour as they made their way through the wetland, feeding, preening, and once even breaking into a courtship-type dance for a few seconds. Red-winged Blackbirds were diving at them and even striking their backs. Unfortunately, no young birds were present, and there was no sign that the adults had dependent young nearby.
We observed the crane pair again on June 16 walking and feeding in the same vegetated wetland for more than an hour. The birds occasionally moved into sections that provided good, open views, so there was no longer any doubt about the loss of the chicks.
It is unfortunate that the young birds seem to have been lost within the same general time period when they were both likely less than one month of age. The most probable scenario is that they were predated by any of numerous possible predators that live in the area: Great Horned Owl, eastern coyote, bobcat, or fisher, among others.
Two adults, presumably the same pair, returned on June 26 at 6:30 am to the property where the family was first seen. They remained in the vicinity and were observed intermittently from June 30 through July 6, early mornings and evenings.
Sean Williams (personal communication) and Tom Pirro (personal communication) verified that we have documented the first confirmed breeding attempt of Sandhill Cranes in Worcester County. We thank our caring and enthusiastic neighbors for their help with our efforts.
We hope the future will bring successful nesting attempts in the region as a result of changing landscapes and climate. Their regular presence would expand the biodiversity richness of Massachusetts avifauna and enrich birders' overall field experiences.
- Joan Walsh and Wayne Petersen. 2013. Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2. Lincoln, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Audubon (Published by Scott and Nix).