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How to Find Visiting Winter Birds

Updated on January 13, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Sandhill Crane

Visiting Sandhill Crane in a corn field
Visiting Sandhill Crane in a corn field | Source

Choosing a Visiting Bird

Toward the end of the summer this year, I became a bit bored with the way I was birding. I kept up with my backyard, I visited the local parks on weekends. This had been working fine for me, until a slump in viewing. There are times of the year when the birds just seem to disappear. So I spent time enjoying other people’s bird pictures on the internet and getting into my bird books.

I follow a birding group on Facebook to see what other birders are finding. If you don’t do this you are missing something wonderful. I may write an article about membership in such groups later, but for now I would just say check it out and enjoy the results. I was seeing some amazing birds I don’t find in my area. One of the birds being featured was the Sandhill Crane.

This lovely big bird moves through the Central Flyway from Canada and Alaska where they breed to their wintering grounds along South Texas and into Mexico. The cranes pictured appeared to be on their way south. I had never seen a Sandhill Crane. I wondered, as they were on their way south, if I could catch site of their arrival.

Step 1 Find Out the Bird’s Timing

The pictures coming to me were from the Platte River area of Nebraska where these birds congregate on their north and south migration flights. People also congregate for a big festival to welcome them. In the spring, this happens from February to early April. I could calculate that they left their Texas wintering grounds sometime in January, but I didn’t know when they arrived. Finding arrival times wasn't easy, but I finally stumbled on an article on a site called the Nature Writers of Texas that claimed that they began showing up in October.


Sandhill Crane Facts

The earliest Sandhill Crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, was unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida.

The oldest Sandhill Crane on record was 36 years, 7 months old. It was originally banded in Wyoming in 1973 and later found in New Mexico in 2010.

Cranes fight off predators by leaping and kicking forward with their feet. Their evasive maneuvering and mostly harmless attacks inspired the Crane Kung Fu style.

Step 2 Searching for Locations

I then gathered a list of places from east to west where they were known to spend the winter. Sandhill Cranes can be found mostly along coastal sites both on the upper Texas coast and the coastal bend areas. Some of the better sites include The Sandhill Crane Sanctuary in Big Spring State Park, Galveston, Mustang Island, and the Brazoria or Aransas National Wildlife Refuges. Other sites mention cranes as visitors including my regular birding haunts around East Houston, but I had yet to see any in those places. Occasionally, I had heard of them showing up at Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve, which I had been visiting through the spring and summer, so I started there.

After finding possible locations it is a good idea to visit their website and find their birding checklist. The checklist is the sighting record for the area that shows just the birds the park or refuge had documented, what season and in what abundance. These are published by either the Park or Refuge themselves or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sandhill Cranes are occasional visitors to Anahuac in winter, but common at Brazos Bend and Brazoria NWR.

Anahauc National Wildlife Reserve

A markerAnahuac NWR -
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Anahuac, TX 77514, USA
get directions

Sea Side Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow at Anahuac NWR.
Seaside Sparrow at Anahuac NWR. | Source

Anahuac NWR

I love going to this place. The reserve is the home of so many different birds through the year. Every few months I visit and see new birds every time. The refuge has both auto tour roads and walking trails, so there are many places to explore. I arrived looking for cranes in mid-October. Starting around the Shoveler Pond, I had high hopes as the Teal-winged ducks had arrived. They were scattered around in good numbers. So were the resident Coots, Moorhens and Cormorants. I headed on to the coast next and found Willets, Seaside Sparrows, Killdeer and an Osprey, but no cranes. I tried again in early November, but still, no cranes.

Brazos Bend State Park

A markerBrazos Bend State Park -
Brazos Bend State Park, 21901 FM 762 Road, Needville, TX 77461, USA
get directions

Buddies at Brazos Bend State Park

White Ibis and American Alligator hanging out at the Forty Acre Lake
White Ibis and American Alligator hanging out at the Forty Acre Lake | Source

Brazos Bend State Park

My next try would be places I had not been before. Surprisingly, they were much closer than I expected. Brazos Bend was a favorite haunt of my father’s. He took me there when I was a teen to see alligators and waterbirds. My father is a retired Navy Photographer and fearless behind a camera. I remember him walking up on an eight-foot gator without a thought to get a good shot of his head in the water lilies. I'm not quite that fearless, but I learned all about photography from him. We still go shooting together when he visits.

My husband and I hiked part of the Forty Acre Lake and saw lots of alligators, but the birds there were mostly blue-winged teal ducks, coots, herons and egrets. We found a huge flock of Black Vultures around Creekfield Lake. There were also a few White Ibises and Grebes. Later, the park rangers told us the geese were late and that they hadn’t seen any cranes yet either.

Brazoria National Wildlife Reserve

A markerBrazoria National Wildlife Reserve -
Brazoria, TX 77422, USA
get directions

Sandhill Cranes in Flight

Sandhill Cranes at the entrance of Brazoria NWR
Sandhill Cranes at the entrance of Brazoria NWR | Source

The Third Try: Brazoria NWR

Heading farther south at the end of November, we tried Brazoria NWR. Mostly, this area is set up for auto tours, but there was at least one walking trail listed on their site map with places to view birds at various stops. It was a longish drive and my directions weren’t to my husband’s liking. He loves me very much to go birding with me. He enjoys it too. He is a better spotter than I am as he has trained himself through years of hunting; but he hates traffic.

Finally we cleared the developed areas and were driving through long sections of country farm roads. As we came up on the entrance for the refuge, there was a spent corn field full of cranes. I mean there must have been 500 or more. The first thing that came to my mind was a jubilant “Jackpot!”

Fluffy Crane

Cranes posturing and making displays
Cranes posturing and making displays | Source

Viewing Sandhill Cranes

We turned into the refuge and parked along the side of the road. I jumped out and headed to the fence line, which wasn’t easy to get to. There had been rain recently so the ditch had standing water and was muddy. On the other side of that was tall grass which one doesn’t go tramping through in Texas. Snakes might still be around as the winter had so far been very mild.

The dangers of the ditch didn’t matter as the birds were skittish. They didn’t like anyone getting close to the fence line so we were obliged to stay back. They stayed a good 40 or 50 feet away from the edge of the field, so long lenses were needed. Another visitor drove up behind us and did the same thing. Before I knew it, there were four cars lined up on the side of the road with happy birder/photographers spilling out.

Crane Facts and Behavior

The cranes were noisy. They make a resonant rattling calls that fills the air. It was hard to pick out the calls of single birds with so many present. The tall birds walked along the field looking for left over grain, insects and whatever else was available. Sandhill Cranes are omnivores feeding on grains mostly but also berries, tubers, small vertebrates, and invertebrates. Their feathers were a light gray, darker at the wing edges. Their heads sported their signature red crown with white cheeks. Their short drooping tails looked like a bustle behind. For such a large bird, getting into the air wasn’t a problem. They were strong flyers taking to the air with a single strong jump and flap of their long wings. In the air, their legs trailed behind their tails. It was the wrong season to see mating dances, but you can see one in the video by nhrma below.

Sandhill Crane Dance

Juvenile Cranes with Parent

Young cranes to right and left of parent.
Young cranes to right and left of parent. | Source

Crane Family Groups

We did see several juveniles with the adults. Some had brown coloring on the backs of their heads. Others didn’t, but still lacked red crown feathers. These young ones were keeping close to adults. Sandhill Cranes normally won’t separate from their parents they make the trip to Nebraska again in the spring. A young bird can mate at two years of age, but sometimes don’t until seven. They mate for life staying close to their mates year round.

Final Word

If you have a chance, don’t miss looking for these tall elegant birds. The process of finding them requires

  • Finding out their migration timing
  • Researching the nearest areas to you on their migration path
  • Checking parks and refuges until you find a flock

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their numbers are climbing slowly from low points in the 1960s. They are doing well, but increases come slowly as only two chicks on average are hatched by a pair every year and only one reaches adulthood.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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