The sandhill cranes that winter on Galveston Island rise with the sun and participate in a slow march, stretching their legs and meandering in marsh grasses before dispersing for the day to feed around the island.
Some days drivers-by can catch a glimpse of a clump of cranes at Tin Cup’s Caddy Shack, the driving range on Stewart Road, at the airport or on nearby baseball fields. Other days, the cranes might be more elusive, choosing to nibble on grain and bugs and amphibians on ranch lands more hidden from view.
Most years, the sandhills, which fly down the central flyway from far northern locations, arrive in South Texas sometime during the last week in October. This year, the first ones arrived Oct. 17, said Alice Anne O’Donell, a birder who counts cranes on the island every day.
On Sunday morning, O’Donell and Greg Whittaker, of Galveston’s Audubon group, spotted 93 cranes during the early morning watch at Sweetwater Preserve, posted private land owned by the Galveston Bay Foundation. The preserve features shallow pools of fresh water surrounded by clumps of marsh grasses, the birds’ chosen habitat for roosting.
“Last year there were 119 sandhills wintering here,” O’Donell said. “Other years, we’ve had as many as 180.”
The return of the sandhill cranes each winter is a treat for bird watchers and anyone who thrills at the sight of a 3-foot to 4-foot-tall bird. South Texas from Galveston to Port Aransas, along the coast and down into Mexico, are central winter roosting locales that see tens of thousands of cranes fly in, then leave in the spring to breed in northern climes.
In Galveston each year, the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council celebrates their return with a crane festival, to be held this year the second weekend in December.
It’s no wonder humans hold these birds in awe. They are an ancient species with fossils found in North America dating 6 million years that are identical to modern sandhill cranes, according to the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Crane remains have been found in Nebraska Eocene sediments from 55 million years ago. They are among the oldest living bird species on Earth.
Sandhills are distinguished by a red mark on their foreheads, black legs and brownish gray bodies that sometimes look more brown than gray as they like to preen their feathers with mud.
They can live for 33 years, have elaborate courtship rituals, mate for life and often return, year after year, to their favorite stomping grounds, sometimes landing within 150 or so feet of the patch of ground where they landed on a previous migration, according to wildlife biologists.
One of just a few crane species — there are 15 altogether — that are not threatened with extinction, North American sandhills have seen a slight uptick in their overall population over the past several decades to an estimated 700,000.
But rapid development and habitat loss threaten their migration habits, which is an important thing to remember for any place where they stop to rest during their long migration or return for breeding, local birders said.
“Before Hurricane Ike, there were three roosts on the island,” O’Donell said. Now, Sweetwater is the only known roost.
Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, just 45 miles southwest of Galveston, sees a large number each year, anywhere from 500 to 1,000 roosting along flooded rice fields on the south side of the refuge, O’Donell said,
The sandhill crane’s distinctive call is a rattling and loud “kar-r-r-ooo” that can often be heard down below as they make ribbons in the sky, flying high overhead.
American naturalist Aldo Leopold, in 1937, said the sandhill crane’s annual return “is the clicking of the geologic clock.
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”