Sandhill Crane USFWS Survey Officially Tracks Expansion

By dgross October 24, 2013

Adult Sandhill Crane by Bill Williams, PGC

Who is the new family on the block? Are they here to stay? As a child, a new neighbor appearing in your world could cause great excitement. Though we are adults now, seeing a new face in our avian neighborhood brings the same thrill: Who is it? Are they here to stay?  For Sandhill Cranes in Pennsylvania, the answer to the latter question appears to be ‘yes.’ 

The Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes has undergone rapid growth in recent decades, and their expanded range now includes Pennsylvania. These birds are a relatively new addition to our avian community. Sporadic sightings began in the late 1980s in the northwest corner of the state. According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, the earliest breeding record occurred in 1993 when a Lawrence county pair disappeared from view in March and re-appeared in August accompanied by a juvenile. As big as cranes may be, they can be very secretive during the nesting season and take advantage of their well-camouflaged plumage.  The first photograph of a nest was not even accomplished until 2009. Since those early, highly-localized reports, cranes have been spotted in more than 30 counties and during every month of the year!  Most of the Sandhill Cranes that are spotted here in fall and spring are probably passage migrants that are not part of the small nesting population of the state.  Thanks to your eBird and Pennsylvania Birds reports, we all have learned a lot more about cranes in the East.  We can learn even more through this focused survey effort.  This USFWS survey is October 27-November 2, with ideal dates occurring October 29-31.  Any additional details about the habitat cranes use would be welcome in eBird reports. 

The crane expansion into Pennsylvania is an exciting story; a testament to the benefits of wetland protection on both public and private lands with long term habitat management benefitting a variety of wildlife.  It is a story that is still unfolding, spawning exciting questions: Where will crane populations become established? Will populations expand rapidly in Pennsylvania as they have done in other states along the migratory flyway? Recent research with marked cranes indicates that cranes avoid crossing large bodies of water where thermal lift is lacking. Such findings suggest that Pennsylvania may not see rapid population growth, but rather slow and steady increases generated by local breeding pairs. The passage migration population size probably depends on habitat availability north of Pennsylvania where they are nesting and on their wintering grounds in the southern states as well as stop-over opportunities here.  Details of the future course of crane populations in Pennsylvania may be uncertain, but one thing seems clear: These new neighbors are here to stay.


Sandhill Cranes in Winter by Jake Dingel

Sandhill Cranes in Winter by Jake Dingel

Due to our growing Sandhill Crane population, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Birds has recently requested Pennsylvania’s participation in the annual Fall Sandhill Crane Survey. Though the survey has been conducted since 1979, this will be the first year of PA involvement. Given the rather late notice, this 2013 survey will primarily be a citizen-observer effort. Observations by bird watchers have been very valuable in tracking the distribution of cranes in Pennylvania, so it seems fitting that citizen observers will help kick off the state’s first official crane monitoring effort.

 This is not a labor-intensive effort. Time commitment includes traveling to known crane staging areas during the late-October survey period to count number of birds, distinguishing between juveniles and adults if possible. Counts are best conducted just after sunrise or just before sunset as birds move to and from their roosts. Each site need only be counted one time. The survey window is October 27-November 2, with ideal dates occurring October 29-31. [This survey period was determined by USFWS.]

Sandhill Cranes in Flight by Jake Dingel.  Note the extended necks.

Sandhill Cranes in Flight by Jake Dingel.
Note the extended necks.

Most nesting Sandhill Cranes in Pennsylvania are associated with wetlands and often in an agricultural setting, but can be found in a wider variety of locations in migration.  Sandhill Cranes often forage in shallows and mud flats along lakes, ponds, and swamps or in agricultural fields nearby.  Especially on the nesting grounds, cranes can become habituated to local livestock and forage side-by-side with cattle and horses.  Scanning pastures and fields near wetlands can be profitable. 

 Additional background info, protocol, data sheet and an identification refresher are available on the PGC website at:

 There are a couple of options for submitting data: 1) download a data sheet and mail to the address provided or 2) make an online entry via the PGC website. Of course, many crane sightings are entered via Pennsylvania eBird and noted on PABIRDS List Serve. For now, the wildlife agencies prefer to receive sighting information via the PGC website or on the downloaded data sheet. That data format was developed in consultation with USFWS. It captures all FWS information needs and is most-easily transferred to their multi-state database, capturing the information needed for the research project.  


Sandhill Cranes in Spring by Joe Kosack

Sandhill Cranes in Spring by Joe Kosack

It’s not often that we get to be on the front end of a new population expansion! So this is a great time to begin charting the future of cranes in Pennsylvania via the Fall Crane Survey. Thank you in advance for assisting in the first Fall Crane Survey. Your data will be submitted to US Fish and Wildlife Service to further the monitoring and management of the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes.  We really appreciate the eBird reports and encourage you to submit more eBird observations in addition to the USFWS survey, including more information about the birds and habitat in the “add details” notes option.  Please keep submitting good crane sightings to eBird through the year!  

 Lisa Williams, PGC Wildlife Biologist

Thanks to Jake Dingel, Joe Kosack, and Bill Williams for photographs!