By Jeanne Church
It won’t be long now before the sandhill cranes will be migrating through Michigan by the thousands! The peak time to observe these magnificent birds is from early October through November. Luckily, you won’t have to travel far to witness their arrival!
If you’re particularly lucky, you might even hear them flying overhead not far from your home, or see them in nearby cornfields foraging for insects and seeds. But if you’re hoping for a more predictable and exhilarating experience, visit one of the following preserves:
The Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary in Bellevue, Michigan has some of the best views of sandhill cranes that fly in by the thousands to feed in the wetlands and then roost at Big Marsh Lake. This sandhill crane “fly-in” is said to be the second largest gathering of sandhills in the country! The very largest gathering takes place from mid-February to early April along a 75-mile stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River where 80 percent of all the sandhill cranes in North America (about a half million) gather during spring migration from mid-February to early April. They are headed north to their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska, while the sandhills we see here in Michigan during October and November are headed south to Florida.
Adjacent to the Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary is the Kiwanis Youth Conservation Area where the Battle Creek Kiwanis Club holds its annual CraneFest near Big Marsh Lake the second weekend in October. This year’s event will be held on October 14 and 15. Each evening, 3,000 to 6,000 sandhill cranes stop by to roost at Big Marsh Lake. The cranes arrive slowly throughout the afternoon and reach peak numbers between 5 p.m. and dusk. Visitors come from all over Michigan and beyond to witness this breathtaking event. You’ll want to bring a camera and binoculars and maybe a folding chair if you expect to stay throughout the afternoon and evening! Details and directions can be found here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/event/kiwanis-club-cranefest/#
Another wonderful place to visit is the Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary six miles northeast of Jackson. With 1,000 acres of protected wetlands, it is the largest roosting area in the state for sandhill cranes. The cranes have a fairly predictable routine of leaving the sanctuary around sunrise to feed in the nearby farm fields and returning one or two hours before sunset. During the day, you can also find flocks of cranes in the nearby fields just by driving up and down the country roads within 5 miles of the sanctuary.
Adjacent to the Haehnle Sanctuary is the Waterloo Recreation Area which has an additional 3,000 acres of protected wetlands where you are also likely to find flocks of sandhill cranes.
Another choice is the Kensington Metropark in Milford, Michigan, where the 1,200-acre Kent Lake has become one of the most popular crane spotting locations in the state. While you’re there, be sure to visit the Kensington Metropark Nature Center where several pairs of sandhill cranes have been nesting for years. They are very acclimated to people and may even approach you along the trails! Unfortunately, these sandhill cranes have learned to associate people with food and will sometimes come too close for comfort expecting a handout. There are signs imploring visitors not to feed them, but not everyone complies. You can still hand feed the songbirds, which is always a delightful experience! Be sure to bring a small bag of bird seed and peanuts!
I have visited all of these preserves at one time or another over the last several years, but never during a sandhill crane migration. When I hear the occasional crane flying overhead or see a flock of them foraging in a farm field, it always feels magical. I plan on visiting one of these preserves in the next few weeks and can’t wait to experience the sight and the sound of thousands of cranes coming in to roost!