• Outdoors Column 23 May

    If you’ve spent much time out in the countryside over the past month, you may have noticed a few more birds in the fields. One bird in particular is becoming much more common across Ontario. Their unique call from both the ground and the sky seems to invoke plenty of inquisitive questions from those who are not familiar with the cry. Motorists passing crop fields across the Peninsula do the head jerk and hit the brakes after first noticing the long-legged frame of these massive migrators. Farmers are beginning to hate them, and many hunters across the province are awaiting an open season. It appears that the Sandhill Crane is here, bigger and better than ever, and squawking their success story for all to hear.

    I first began to take notice of the numerous cranes in Ontario during my time at university in Sudbury. A decade ago, while on a road trip to sample Lake Superior’s steelhead fishing in May, I passed a grain field near the town of Thessalon on Huron’s north shore. To my amazement, the field was full of Sandhill Cranes. Dozens of the birds were mingling about, making loud crane noises and seeming highly out of place to my eye. I thought that I was familiar with most of the province’s migratory birds and believed that I had witnessed some totally uncommon phenomenon. . . until I passed another half dozen fields along Highway 17, all of which harbored massive numbers of the giant, odd-looking birds. I returned to school the following Monday and quizzed my Biology Professor who filled me in on Ontario’s Sandhill Crane population and the rosy success story of a bird that was nearly wiped out in North America.

    If you have yet to notice our local Sandhills, take a short ride up the Peninsula. For the past month, many of the fields along the highway between Wiarton and Tobermory have been host to plenty of the grey-bodied cranes who sport a rather smart face of white and red. Closer to Owen Sound, cranes can be seen in crop fields near Shallow Lake, Parkhead, Clavering and Hepworth.

    Averaging over 3.5 ft while standing, the large cranes have a wingspan of up to 7ft across and can weigh up to 15lbs. Sandhills are migratory, heading south in the winter once food becomes scarce. Local populations are said to be that of the Eastern population of North American Sandhills. Depending upon local weather and availability of food, Sandhills begin showing up in Grey/Bruce in early April. This year, reports of Sandhill sightings began in mid March.

    Cranes are a social bunch, often forming family groups of related birds and congregating in large groups during migration. Northern Sandhills nest in late April and early May. An interesting tidbit for those with strong family values, it is worth noting that both male and female cranes take part in nest-building and incubation of eggs. The eggs are commonly few in number as cranes only raise between one and three young per year. Adult Sandhills are often praised as being incredible parents who will defend their young with violent attacks on predatory mammals and birds of prey who look to make meals out of their “colts”. Thankfully, Sandhills have few predators and an average of 1.5 colts survive per breeding pair.

    In the early 1900’s, Sandhill Crane numbers in much of North America reached historic lows. Due to habitat loss and over-hunting of numerous sub-populations, Sandhill numbers dropped off exponentially. The total number of Eastern Sandhills during this period in history fell to roughly a few hundred individuals. Measures to protect the cranes, a better understanding of their biology and migration habits, and preservation of essential habitat in the United States and Canada has helped to boost numbers. Estimates now put numbers of Sandhills who call Ontario home in excess of 20,000 birds, part of a migrating Lesser Sandhill population numbering close to half a million. A large portion of these cranes take up residence on Lake Huron’s northshore, Manitoulin Island, and the Bruce Peninsula.

    The continuing gain in the overall population of Sandhills is not all rosy news however. Sandhills can wreak havoc on farm crops. When large flocks of migrating birds arrive during early season plantings the results can be disastrous. Sandhills are know to decimate newly emerging corn, devouring the whole plant from the ground with their long, sharp beaks. During the fall, in order to build up protein for their trip south, cranes once again hit crop fields as grains dry before they are combined or for waste grains after the harvest.

    With the support of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, legions of farmers, and numerous hunters, there has been a push to see Ontario add an open hunting season for Sandhill Cranes. If this were to happen, Ontario would join the list of 3 Provinces, 1 Territory and 12 States in the U.S., which provide the opportunity to harvest Sandhills. More research regarding the eastern populations of Sandhills will be required before any hunt is initiated, but work is underway throughout the province in terms of graduate-studies, Canadian Wildlife Services research and the OFAH.

    I have hunted migratory birds in the Canadian provinces that have open seasons for Sandhills, and although I never harvested a crane, I did get a chance to watch them approach and land just outside of my goose decoy spread. They descend on a field much like geese, but soar in the air similar to a bird of prey like hawks or eagles drifting on a thermal. I have heard from those who hunt cranes in the west that Sandhills have keen eyesight and are difficult to decoy, making them a challenge for the hunter. The added fact that Sandhills were nearly hunted to extinction due to their praised contribution to culinary delights may influence my decision to take part in a legal hunt if given the opportunity, and I know plenty of hunters who share my feelings when it comes to enjoying nature’s fine meats.

    Regardless of whether you have any interest in harvesting one in the future, or would prefer to break out your binoculars and go bird watching, it goes without a doubt that these interesting birds are becoming more common in our local area. The Sandhill crane is a marvel for those who take the time to notice. Having the opportunity to hear their unique calls, witness a courting dance, or spy a parental pair taking care of their young should act as a reminder that nature can find a way if given the chance.


    If you are looking to get out on the water and take part in a popular local derby, look no further than the Kincardine Chamber of Commerce Fish Kincardine Derby which started on May 17 and runs until May 26. Reports from Lake Huron suggest that the salmon and trout fishing has been fantastic over the past week. Local salmon catching specialist, Tony Degasperis, has switched ports for the derby, taking up residence in Kincardine while searching for a top fish in the event. Degasperis notes, “Plenty of salmon and lake trout are coming over depths of 80 to 120 feet. Many of the Chinook and steelhead are in the top 50 feet of the water column, with the lake trout hugging the bottom for the most part.” Degasperis said anglers should focus on trolling spoons “at speeds between 1.8 and 2.5mph depending on which lure you choose”. Reports from successful anglers over the weekend suggest HotFish spoons in yellow and green have been a popular choice, as well as those in glow patterns. Anglers have been reporting good success along the shoreline from Kincardine north to Port Elgin.

    Leading salmon at of the time of this report was a 15.20lb Chinook caught by Jeremy Creeden of Teeswater. The largest trout to date was a behemoth laker landed by local charter captain Rick Dwinnell of Kincardine. Dwinnell’s lake trout tipped the scales at 20.96lb when caught on Monday.

    There is plenty of time left to put in some time trolling Huron before the derby ends. For more information and full leaderboard check out www.fishkincardinederby.com.
  • Recent Articles