The beauty of cranes and long-term friends

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Wild Ways

  • Migratory sandhill cranes arrive in the Gainesville area by the hundreds in winter. They are often found in fields with grazing cattle. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Migratory sandhill cranes arrive in the Gainesville area by the hundreds in winter. They are often found in fields with grazing cattle. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
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During my most recent visit to Gainesville I was vividly reminded about longevity and long-lasting friendships – something represented by the symbol of cranes, some say. Well, this trip to Gainesville had it all.

First off, on my quarterly visit to see my old major professor, Dr. Elizabeth Wing, in her assisted living accommodations at Oak Hammock, I took her out-and-about on the car ride we enjoy every time I visit.  We always travel the nearly vacant country roads south of Gainesville, always take different routes each time, and always end up for lunch at The Yearling Restaurant about 20 miles away.

Along these scenic roads we always spot lots of wildlife, whether it is turkeys, vultures, egrets, deer, woodpeckers or alligators. I always stop so Liz and I can admire the beauty of the nature around us. Sometimes when I visit it is spring, and azaleas are in bloom. Sometimes it is fall, and we admire the hickory and maple trees in their autumn splendor. Sometimes our 20-mile drive turns into nearly an hour of fun for both of us. This trip was even more special than most: The sandhill cranes are here!

First, Liz and I saw a pair of sandhill cranes strutting nonchalantly across the road in front of us, not at all concerned when we stopped the car to watch them. There are two subspecies of sandhill cranes in Florida, a year-round population mostly south of Orlando and a migratory subspecies that visits Florida in the winter. These two were most likely migrants, since Gainesville is not a regular area to see cranes year round. But these two were just a forewarning of the sights to follow.

We were nearly back at Oak Hammock, passing the University of Florida beef research facility, when I remembered a year I saw cranes in the pastures. We stopped by to look and were richly rewarded. There must have been 50 cranes there in the field with the cattle, competing with the cattle egrets for insects.

Some years the migrant cranes are joined by a couple of whooping cranes that have been introduced to Florida and migrate with the sandhill cranes, but not this time, alas. No matter what, the large number of cranes was a glory to behold.

A bit later that day, after I joined my gal friends Mary, Nona, and Karen for a reunion in Gainesville, cranes were still on my mind, and rightly so. Mary Bishop and I were grad students together. Mary studied sandhill cranes in the Kissimmee Prairie for her Ph.D. while I went off to Malaysia to study otters. Nona – Mary’s cousin – joined her as a research assistant, and I visited them a number of times when their study was active. Mary later went on to become an expert on black-necked cranes in China from her base in Alaska. Cranes are never far from our minds when we four get together, our own symbol of our long lasting friendship.

Here on Amelia Island, we do not have any cranes. Even Crane Island’s name is a mistake.  Some people may confuse the tall great blue herons with sandhill cranes, but they are very different birds that you can see if you Google them. If you do want to see sandhill cranes, I suggest you take a drive over to Gainesville in the next few weeks while the migratory population is still here. There are at least three good places to find them right now. The place I saw them recently was on University of Florida property just south of campus on Williston Road.

The annual Christmas bird count also recorded hundreds of cranes at the Sweetwater Wetlands Park and more still on the La Chua trail in Paynes Prairie State Park. While you are at either place, be sure to also look for the limpkins and snail kites – two species new to the area that moved north to Gainesville to take advantage of the good source of apple snails, their sole diet. Apple snail populations, both native and non-native species, were enhanced when the Sweetwater Wetlands was rehabilitated and the birds followed. Most birdwatchers and zoologists are not so worried about the non-native snails here; it’s a trade-off for attracting more threatened bird species to watch.

Enjoy your crane watching, and your long-term friendships too. It works for me!