Gary, Indiana is known as the birthplace of the King of Pop, “Michael Jackson”; however, my journey does not take me there. I am travelling to Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife refuge, located northwest of Medaryville, Indiana. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the land acquisition began in 1929. After its purchase, it was primarily used for hunting. The 8,000+ acres were designated as a fish and game area in 1965. Then, in 1972, the name was changed to Jasper-Pulaski fish and wildlife area.
Jasper-Pulaski fish and wildlife area offer a unique opportunity to observe large numbers of migrating Canadian geese and Sandhill cranes. Two observation towers provide great viewing points to see thousands of Sandhill cranes during the annual fall migration.
Here is an insiders tip, one of the most beautiful and majestic natural phenomena’s in the natural world occurs early each spring just outside Kearney, Nebraska. If you love nature, you’ll want to experience this event first hand and plan your trip today. I witnessed the annual congregation of an estimated 500,000 Sandhill cranes as they converge on the Platte River basin, to rest and feed before they finish their migration to their summer northern breeding grounds in northern Canada and western Siberia in Russia. They winter in Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. In the early spring, the cranes begin the migration to their breeding grounds.
History of the Sandhill Crane
A fossil from the Miocene Epoch, some ten million years ago, was found to be structurally the same as the modern-day Sandhill crane. Today, these large birds are found predominantly in North America. They live as far south as Mexico and Cuba, and as far west as Siberia.
Three subpopulations of Sandhill cranes are migratory. The Lesser, Greater and Canadian Sandhill cranes. The ones I saw along the Platte River all had gray feathers, but sometimes they can have a reddish-brown appearance. The reason for the change in color is that Sandhill cranes preen themselves by rubbing mud on their feathers. The mud can be brown or red. The red mud comes from iron-rich environments.
Sandhill cranes can live for 20 years or more. They have a very distinctive call; they make a rattling “kar-r-r-r- o-o-o” sound. When I first heard it, it sounded like the sound a Pterodactyl would make. The call varies in length, strength, and loudness depending on its intention. The loudest and most noticeable call is during the mating season. During mating, Sandhill cranes perform dancing displays. Although the dancing is most common in the breeding season, the cranes can dance all year long. Sometimes the dance involves wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around. They might also throw a stick or some plants into the air. It’s quite a sight!
A mated pair will build a ground nest out of plant materials. They often have two eggs. The pair will take care of the nest together with the male standing guard. It takes about a month for the eggs to hatch and over two months for the chicks to be independent. In the fall, the juvenile Sandhill cranes migrate south with their parents. After two years, the juvenile Sandhill cranes reach sexual maturity and begin the search to find their own mates.
Let The Adventure Begin
After monitoring the weather forecast for Medaryville, IN for most of the week, on Wednesday Bill and I agreed that the forecasted outlook was favorable for this photo adventure. This time of year, high temps would cap out at 40° and the lower temps hovering around 31° with WSW wind of 5-10 mph. Not ideal, but worth the trip.
Off we went, we spotted crows and more than thirty or so raptors along Highway’s 270 East and 57 North. The most unique sighting was that of a subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Krider’s Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii).
You can learn quite a bit about someone in a 5-hour drive. Bill and I discussed our photography styles, workflow processing, social media sharing challenges, blogging, and also his trips to Guyana and Trinidad.
Bill has an unbelievable weight loss story. He has shed more than 100 lbs! To look at him you would not know that, but his process is a journey that he still continues today. I am 45 lbs. down from where I was this summer myself, so it is always encouraging to both hear and share these types of weight loss success stories.
When we finally arrived at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area Sandhill Crane Observation Tower, it was around 2:45 pm and boy was it dreary.
The sun was not visible, but you could see the Sandhill cranes by the thousands out in the fields. As we made our way up the observation deck, I jokingly said, “I am sure we will run into someone from Saint Louis.” We ended up running into Lisa and Andy Kee. We stuck around for a while longer to see if the light would improve, but it never did. Dinner sounded like a great idea, and Bill mentioned 3 Floyds Brewing Co. located in Munster, IN, who are famous for their IPA’s (India pale ale). However, the 2-hour wait coupled with the 1-hour drive killed those plans. So we ended up having dinner at Don Quijote in Valparaiso, IN. I had the Patatas Brava’s and the Vegetable Paella both of which were phenomenal. If your travels ever take you near there, the authentic Spanish cuisine is worth it!
We checked into the base camp for the night (The Comfort Suites in Rensselaer, IN) with a wake-up time of 4:30 am, which arrived quickly! The drive to Sandhill Crane observation tower was roughly 33 minutes (29.2 miles). While it was not as dreary as the day before, it was still overcast and we didn’t see the sun until 10 am, when there was still heavy low cloud cover.
We left the observation tower and manoeuvred through the maze of county roads, looking in the nearby fields for any cranes that were near the roadside. We found a handful, and after catching a few images we decided to break for lunch. We originally planned to have Quizno’s, but next door we spotted Marcella’s, an Italian restaurant in Wheatfield, IN. The server greeted us in flight attendant attire, which seemed odd, but we were like, there has to be a reason for it. We sat down, placed our order, and as we waited Bill asked about the attire. It was rather a unique concept, have you ever been to an Italian restaurant where the servers wore flight attendant attire? Neither have I.
Bill was very happy because his thirst for an IPA (India pale ale) was about to be quenched, he had something called a ‘Gumballhead and Alpha King.’ I had a thin crust pizza called Namaste: Organic extra virgin olive oil with sautéed asparagus spears, red bell peppers, zucchini and fresh garlic topped with mozzarella, Swiss and parmesan cheeses. It was great.
After a delicious lunch, it was time to head back out for some more shooting! The sun tried its darndest to break through the clouds, every now and again we were teased with a shaft of light in the distance, but it never materialized.
We decided to stay until sunset to see the cranes come home to roost and if there were any opportunities to capture some crane in flight silhouettes against the setting sun’s sky.
The unpredictability of mother nature, made photographing the cranes a challenge today. So many factors weren’t in our favor: the low clouds, the lack of sunlight, the distance and flight path of the cranes. When I got home and looked at the images, I discarded close to 90%. The ones I kept still aren’t great, but they can be used to document the adventure. All things aside, I enjoyed the trip and getting to know more about Bill and his story was worth it!
Until the next adventure.
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