Jamie Avery’s trim figure is silhouetted against the sullen dawn sky. We silently follow her purposeful lead along a short path flanked by rust- and honey-colored grasses. We arrive at the mud flats’ edge and gaze across the water. The haphazard rhythm of raindrops on my hood is the sound of anticipation. We wait.
I heard the reason for my visit as soon as I arrived at Barren River Lake State Resort Park. The trilling, cooing call of the sandhill cranes reached my ears before I’d even pulled my bag from the trunk of the car. I would have to wait another 13 or so hours before I’d see the source of that oddly soothing sound.
The Louie B. Nunn State Lodge, built the same year I was born (1971), was similarly comforting. The expansive windows and warm, wood-planked interiors of the lobby and dining room felt like an exceptionally grand version of my childhood home. The charming, retro appeal of my lodge room was complemented by just the right amount of modernization for comfort’s sake.
After exploring the property surrounding the lodge hoping to set eyes on a sandhill crane but settling for a deer sighting, I had dinner with a few Parks employees and a wildlife writer/photographer who’d made the trip to Barren County for a preview of the Sandhill Crane Nature Watch Weekends, which will be offered to the public Jan. 23 – 24 and 30 – 31. I was the lone sandhill crane virgin of the group and hearing their crane tales fueled my excitement.
The tall, gray-plumed sandhill cranes make annual migratory stops to Barren River Lake’s mud flats, which are exposed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draw down the lake for winter. Sandhill cranes live 20 to 30 years, reach heights of 4 to 5 feet, weigh up to 14 pounds, and have wingspans of 6 to 8 feet. There are two migratory sub-species of sandhill cranes: lesser and greater; the greater sandhill cranes migrate through Barren County. The cranes’ northern homes and breeding grounds are Wisconsin, Michigan and South-central Ontario. They migrate south from mid-November to early December and spend their winters mainly in Florida and Georgia (although, according to Park Naturalist Jamie Avery, some of the cranes may spend the season at Barren River).
As I fiddle with the dial on my binoculars, the gray blobs near the opposite bank come into focus, and I’m rewarded with a view of not just a few but hundreds of sandhill cranes. On the van ride from the park to the Beaver Creek Recreation area, where we are now, Jamie told us there are about 1,200 sandhill cranes currently in the area—some of whom now appear through my lenses and others that roost closer to the park (undoubtedly, the cranes I heard the evening before).
The minutes tick by. We continue to wait. Jamie quietly points out a bonus bird: a bald eagle that, to her almost-childlike delight, flew overhead when we exited the van and is now perched in a tree.
Then, preceded by loud and lively calls, it begins. In small groups, the cranes take flight. The departures are slow-going at first—the literal early birds ready for their worms (or, in this case, more likely corn)—but eventually the gray sky is teeming with movement.
“There are two things I love about the cranes: watching them dance and watching them land,” says Jamie, referring first to the various displays the birds engage in as a form of communication, and then explaining how they land by “putting their wings out and falling like a parachute.”
The sandhill crane eastern population, including the thousands that migrate to Kentucky, is about 70,000. If Kentucky sportsmen are unusually successful during the fourth annual sandhill crane hunting season, which runs Dec. 13, 2014 through Jan. 11, 2015, that number could be reduced by 400, the quota set by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Kentucky’s first sandhill crane hunting season took place in 2011. “There were a lot of people unhappy about it,” says Jamie. Hunters bagged 229 sandhill cranes during the first three hunting seasons. The majority were killed on privately owned lands in Barren County.
After all the cranes—except one, which Jamie suspects is injured—have left the roosting site, we follow suit and drive to a nearby cornfield for a closer view of the cranes as they feed. The omnivorous birds dine on grains, plant tubers, mice, snakes, insects and worms. “Farmers like them because they probe into the soil and aerate it,” Jamie says.
The sandhill crane tours have proved so popular that two Friday sunset tours have been added for 2015, bringing the total number of tours to six; there are morning and afternoon tours on Saturday. Space is limited to 27 people per tour. The $40 registration fee ($20 for children ages 8 – 12) includes a four-hour van tour to the roosting and feeding sites, a boxed meal, a Friday evening educational session with a KDFWR wildlife biologist, and a long-sleeve T-shirt. When booking your state park lodge room, be sure to ask for the special sandhill crane room rate of $49.95, plus tax.
Jamie, a Kentucky State Park naturalist for 8 years, leads all the tours, sharing both her expertise of, and wonderment for, Barren River’s annual visitors. “I get paid to play,” she says with a smile.
If you go …
Sandhill Crane Nature Watch Weekends
Jan. 23 – 24 and 30 – 31
Click or tap HERE for a pre-registration form
For more information, contact Jamie Avery at firstname.lastname@example.org