One of my favorite birds is the Sandhill crane. They are rarely seen on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge or on the Peninsula, but they can be seen in Vancouver, Washington, on the Lower River Road where the Columbia Land Trust purchased property to facilitate the cranes’ wintering needs.
Corn is planted in the large fields for the migrating Sandhill cranes to feast on before leaving for their nesting grounds in the far north. This area is one of the major migratory stopover points for Sandhill cranes. The Columbia Land Trust built berms around the edges of the fields to protect them and other migrating waterfowl from onlookers, but there are a few spots where you can feast your eyes on these beauties. Hundreds of birds are almost always in the air, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. In addition to the Sandhill cranes, there are thousands of snow geese, and hundreds of Canada geese and cackling geese to be seen. The euphony of all the waterfowl’s voices is music to any birdlovers’ ear!
The Sandhill cranes you see will be in large flocks as the family groups forage for grains and invertebrates in the prairie-like fields. Sandhill cranes are tall with heavy bodies. They have a long neck and long black legs. They have drooping feathers at their rear end that look like a bustle. Some of their body feathers are tan and they have a red crown.
You will see the Sandhills group together, filling the air with their distinctive cries. You may even see mates displaying to one another with an exuberant, graceful dance. If you make the trip to Vancouver’s Lower River Road I am sure the Sandhill cranes will dance their way into your heart.
The snow geese feed and rest together. The sea of white in the field is mesmerizing and amazing to look at. Like the Sandhills, they, too, are almost always in the air in the early morning or late afternoon. Imagine seeing hundreds of geese that look like “Little Orphan Annie.” It is a spectacular sight.
Canada geese are part of the crowd on the Lower River Road. Their familiar V shaped flight can be seen as they slowly come in for a landing on the grass nearby the grain fields. A resonant honking is given off by the flocks when the Canadas are in the air. It matters not whether they are coming or going!
So for a drive of just under three hours you can see a show unlike any other. Hundreds of birds in the air all giving their call at once, and hundreds or more on the ground murmuring to one another while they feed and rest. They are all fattening up as they get ready for the flight north to their breeding grounds. Hurry, if you want to take advantage of one of the greatest shows on earth. The birds will likely be leaving sometime in March or early April. Then the curtain will drop only to rise again when they return next November.
”Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula,” by M. Kalbach and S. Stauffer, is available from the Chinook Observer, Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.