Florida Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis pratensis

Sandhill Crane in Central Florida

Looking a tad caught in the act, this Sandhill Crane looks very dressed up with its bustle of taffeta-like feathers all fluffed out.

The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a long-legged, heron-like  species which originated in North America and NE Siberia.  It is a highly migratory species and winters in the south. Adults are an overall gray color but during breeding the plumage looks a bit tattered with orange-brown stains. Juveniles have reddish brown backs with a gray underbelly. The most distinctive feature is the red forehead patch. The face has white feathers  and the bill is a slender, pointed dark black.  Nebraska’s Sandhills , a major migration stopover with over 450,000 birds flying through each year, gives the species its common name. While similar in appearance to herons, cranes fly with necks outstretched, not tucked back in an S curve.

Sandhills are considered one of the oldest species on earth as a validated fossil specimen exists which is 2.5 million years old. According to Wikipedia this is  over one and a half times older than the remains of any other bird species. Today there are six accepted subspecies of the Sandhill Crane. Three of these are resident species with one  of those being Grus canadensis pratensis,  the Florida Sandhill Crane. At one time the Florida Sandhill Crane was listed as” EC” meaning easily confused, though not the bird rather for identification purposes as it looks similar to the Whooping Crane. There was an attempt to increase the numbers of Whooping Cranes via putting eggs in the nests of Sandhill Cranes. Thus fostering the young with Sandhills. As nature would have it, imprinted by their Sandhill foster parents, the young Whooping Cranes no longer recognized other Whooping Cranes as mates and tried without success to pair with Sandhills.  Florida sandhill cranes stay with the same mate for several years, not just one season as the heron’s do.  Young sandhills stay with their parents until they are about 10 months old again differing from the herons which leave the nest by at least 3 months.  Like their endangered relatives the whooping cranes, sandhills live to be older than most birds. Some sandhill cranes live up to 21 years.

Sandhill Cranes are by no means an endangered species but the Florida Sandhill Crane is regarded as threatened as they are sensitive to changed environments. The population is numbered at about 5,000 birds and with proper habitat management strategies the outlook should be good for the Florida Sandhills.  As it is, killing a Sandhill Crane carries a heavy fine in Florida.  The population swells  when wintering birds have headed south.

Even though I spent  much time photographing  other large long legged birds as the Great Blue Heron and  Great Egret, I was not even aware of that we had Sandhill Cranes in Florida until my father gave me an article about Sandhills being at risk crossing busy streets in the town of Viera, Florida.   Sandhill Cranes do occur in southern Florida, though I have not seen any in Broward County where I live, but they are present in larger numbers in Central to Northern Florida. A good friend who hikes wilderness areas in Palm Beach County has seen them there…just one county north of me.  Once I became aware of them I made some trips specifically to check them out so I headed north a bit.   I’ve seen them in pairs along I-95 at times in the center of the state, and even stopped the car to photograph a pair on the side of the road a few years ago. I saw a group on Highway 192 also a few years ago and they made the most haunting sound I’d had ever heard from a group of birds. (Play clip below) The sounds reminded me of Jurassic Park and for me evoked pre-history.  The bird images I included with this post, I found while on the outer-skirts of a job site south of Tampa.

Unlike herons and the wading birds, the Sandhill Cranes do not fish. They feed with their bills down to the ground and root around for seeds and worms in shallow wetlands areas.  Sandhill cranes are eat a various plant and animal foods, such as grains and berries as well as insects, earthworms, lizards and frogs. Certainly the pictured Sandhills are occupied with probing the mud for a meal.

Sandhill Crane Face

Close up view of the textures of the Sandhill Crane face with its distinctive red patch and inquisitive orange eyes. He’s been busy probing the muddy field.

Sandhill Cranes in central Florida

I’ve only seen Sandhill Cranes three times, twice in pairs like this and once on a small group of about eight.

Sandhill Crane in Central Florida

In these shots you can see the gray base color with the tinges of orange-brown.

Sandhill Crane Preening

Sandhill Crane preening but not sure if it is cleaning its feathers or wiping off its muddy bill!! 🙂

Enjoy this clip of the Nebraska’s Great Sandhill Crane Migration-it should be on every birder’s or bird photographers bucket list to go and witness!


~ by Judy on November 2, 2013.

12 Responses to “Florida Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis pratensis”

  1. …. Beautiful birds, indeed. But I run across a lot of them down here in South Florida. They do like to hang out on area golf courses; but I see them “in the wild” when I hike the Lake to Ocean Trail in North Palm Beach County. I saw a bunch of them together at the Sweetbay NA, and smaller families in the Apoxee Wilderness, Hungryland Slough, and Corbett State Park. Winter AND summer, too – some stick around all year. There are enough of them around the Beeline Highway that there are Sandhill Crane crossing signs. Whenever I run across one, it’s the star of the show!

    • We do have the resident Sandhill Cranes for sure all year round. I can stand corrected on them being further south than I thought. I had never seen any until getting close to Orlando or so or maybe around Ft. Pierce. But, if you have seen plenty in Palm Beach County that is definitely south. I have not encountered any in Broward or Dade or Monroe counties but truly my range is more limited than the birds!! 🙂 I need to get around more!!

      What is the beeline highway? 528 going from I-95 to Orlando is referred to as the Beeline Highway. Is yours in Palm Beach County?

      Went to Wako today, first time in a long time, and saw a Least Bittern in mortal combat with a snake. Guess who won!!

      • …. The Beeline (SR 710) is a 4 lane divided highway that runs straight as an arrow from Riviera Beach to Okeechobee City. They should designate it as a national scenic highway. It forms the boundary for many of the more significant NE Everglades preserves.
        …. Down your way, I spotted a pair of Sandhills at the Marshall / Lox NWR. I never saw one at Waco or Green Cay. I gotta get back down there some day soon. Pure Bird-o-Mania!

      • Jimbey! I changed my text above to reflect your observations of more southerly Sandhill Cranes!

        Maybe we can rendezvous at Wako sometime this season and get Feygirl too!!

  2. Beautiful birds with their crimson-red polls. Britain has nothing to equal them, just an occasional spoonbill; elegant, though, in their saffron-flashed white. But the numbers quoted in that video! The thousands that gather at migration time (no matter the bird) is always astounding. Are there truly that many birds. Yet we know their numbers are greatly reduced since Man’s interference. I have the good fortune to live cheek-by-jowl to Breydon Waters – once known as ‘the Great Estuary’ (of 3 rivers), it’s now more of a landlocked mudflat through which the 3 rivers flow combined into one. As you might imagine, nutrient rich and close to the sea, it serves as a gathering place for swans, ducks and waders in both spring and autumn. But never is the picture like the one you’ve provided. I thank you for that.

    • Origin:
      1250–1300; Middle English polle (hair of the) head < Middle Low German: hair of the head, top of a tree or other plant; akin to Danish puld, Swedish pull crown of the head

      There see, you have forwarded my education through your use of the word 'poll ' reference to the bird's red crown patch. So its not just voting or collecting opinions!! Who knew!! Or do I show utter ignorance? Maybe a poll is an opinion off the top of your head?? Sigh….

      The Nebraska fly way numbers are indeed 1/2 a million birds. It was surprising for me the first time I saw a TV documentary on it that anywhere in the US there remained such a spectacle of numbers. You think of things like that in Africa or South America.

      I love your descriptions of your area!!

      • I like you interpretation of a ‘poll’ as an opinion off the top of your head.
        I first knew ‘poll = head’ from the British bird, Red Poll; I think it’s a member of the linnet family. But ‘poll’ also gives us that little understood word, ‘poleaxe’. It is not an axe on the end of a pole, but is the verb, to crack someone’s head with an axe. Um, yea, I do sleep with a dictionary. 🙂

  3. …. I am humbled, m’Lady! Inspired by your article, I went out looking for them today, but no luck. All I saw were a pair of adult bald eagles, a few osprey, a few hawks and a snail kite (along with the rest of our usual wading menagerie). BORING! Just kidding – everybody but the cranes came out to play – including a couple otters and the youngest and smallest gators I have yet seen – about 8 inches long. Mommy gator was NOT amused by my presence. …. A friend of mine reported seeing a pair of Sandhill Cranes on a fairway at Broken Sound Country Club outside of Boca Raton. Almost down to your county!

  4. Such a delight to see the sandhill here! I was lucky enough on my trip to come across the migration in …. oh, gosh. Where was I? The very northern part of the Texas panhandle, because I already was in cotton.

    I heard them first, and thought they were geese. Then, I listened more closely and realized I was hearing cranes. They sounded exactly like your clip. I started driving toward the sound (think: gravel roads winding through cotton and other fields) and eventually I saw a few flying. Then, I saw more, and then more. There weren’t hundreds in the air, but it’s hard to say how many were invisible on the ground.

    I got a couple of truly terrible photos. They were quite far away, and they fly fast, so the lack of a telephoto lens and no experience in tracking flying creatures with a camera meant the few pics I got were pure luck and blurry. Still. It was wonderful to see them.

    Some traditionally have wintered south of me in the rice fields near Blessing and Palacios. I’ve got a trip there on my winter to-do list now. Maybe I can find a flock and get some better photos.

    • I was so unaware of Sandhills in Florida until my father pointed out the article which is probably surprising. When we encountered the group of 8 or so birds on Hwy 192, I heard the sound but asked my husband ‘is that sound coming from the birds?’ It just seemed so eerie to me and the birds did not appear to be calling out. And it carried so.

      Don’t feel bad about the camera bird tracking thing…I really have not mastered that either. I should set aside some time and concentrate only on flying shots. I get so wrapped up in the portrait worthy postures and feather and eye detail, that I don’t evolve into other aspects of the work.

      Maybe we can both find a flock of the cranes. A couple of years ago a business associate was telling me of large groups of Sandhills he saw somewhere in northern Florida in February. I have been meaning to ask where and maybe strike out for that opportunity. Do send picture of the Texas Cranes!! I would love to see them.

  5. I just adore these guys… I had no idea they were one of the oldest species. Wonderful, beautiful post!! 🙂 There’s a family of Sandhills I always visit with in one of my favorite hiking spots….

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