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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sandhill cranes migrate north

By Janisse Ray

This past Sunday my friend Albert Culbreath heard a strange bugling in the Tifton sky. Actually, he felt it more than heard it, he said. Gazing upward, Albert witnessed a flock of sandhill cranes, flying northward, calling back and forth to each other their magnificent "ga-roo-roo-roos."

Before Albert lost count, he had tallied more than 100 cranes.

Sandhill cranes stand four to five feet tall, with a gray body and a red forehead. They court with enthusiastic, leaping dances. They mate for life and nest in marshes and other open, treeless places.

Florida naturalist Archie Carr once wrote that only three great animal voices remain in the southeastern United States -- "the jovial lunacy of the barred owl ... the roar of the alligator ... the ethereal bugling of the sandhill crane."

The birds never fail to put me in mind of my great friend Milton Hopkins, a passionate observer of wildlife on his Osierfield, Ga., farm until his death last year. Milton always dropped me notes to say the cranes were passing in their flyway. Sometimes they descended to feed or spend the night. Once, Milton was standing in a field when a flock of more than 300 cranes landed.

After Milton died, right in the middle of his funeral a long "V" of sandhill cranes passed overhead, sounding their ancient music, their rattling trumpets. Maybe Milton heard the cranes, Albert wrote me, and decided to fly off with them.

When I hear sandhill cranes in late winter, I know spring is on its way. I start looking for the first purple martin scouts to come flying in from South America, and the first dogtooth violets to bloom in the woods. Soon frogs will be breeding, and we'll see our first swallow-tail kites.

Milton always reported the cranes migrating between March 1 and 19. February is early for them.

People say the cranes are moving earlier in the spring and later in the fall, and that global warming may be responsible. In fact, studies show spring has rushed forward an average of 10 days worldwide in the last 30 years. This led the Arbor Day Foundation to redraw its hardiness zone maps in 2006 based on new weather data. All across the country gardeners are getting longer growing seasons.

This year, then, I'll start looking early for trillium to bloom and cypress to leaf out, and for cranes to come calling.

Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, keeps a pair of binoculars handy.

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