Sandhill cranes Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

It’s time we go on a birding adventure together. Hop in the boat.

The boat, in this case, is a tiny inflatable, about nine feet long and four feet wide, powered by a 6 horsepower engine. The boat’s name is Tubby. It’s my stealth watercraft, used when I want to sneak up on birds and other wildlife in remote places.

There’s only room for the two of us. Get in the front. I’ll steer. We’re headed for the north end of Pushaw Lake, where Pushaw Stream enters. The last mile of the stream runs through a terrific marsh. Loads of sneaky birds nest in there, but they are no match for Tubby and me.

Technically, this May 2 adventure is too early for most of the marsh birds. Many aren’t back yet. Primarily, I’m hoping to see some American bitterns, and maybe some migrating ducks.

The marsh wrens, Virginia rails, eastern kingbirds, alder flycatchers and willow flycatchers are due in about a week. This morning, shortly after daybreak, we find one great blue heron, two annoyed Canada geese, two unusually placid common loons, nine suspicious ring-necked ducks, a swarm of tree swallows mingling with a few barn swallows, scores of red-winged blackbirds, several bald eagles, about a zillion swamp sparrows and … and…

Omigod, did you hear that? It’s the unmistakable sound of sandhill cranes! They’re not the noisiest birds on the planet, but they’re in a tie for second place.

We can’t see them yet. They’re back there in the rushes, behind some shrubs. Tubby has oars, so we pull up the motor and row in through the not-yet-blooming lily pads, seeking a glimpse. And there they are. OmigodX2, they’re dancing! They’re both hopping up and down, wings open, inviting — how shall I say it? — sex.

A couple decades ago, sandhill cranes would have been considered rare in Maine. Then, over just a few breeding seasons, they established a colony in Belgrade alongside Messalonskee Lake. That is still the most reliable place to see them in Maine.

They’ve also spread out a bit since then, colonizing a few other Maine wetlands. However, sightings are still limited and unusual. Now it appears they’re ready to lay eggs in my extended backyard.

Sandhill cranes are large, nearly the size of the unrelated great blue heron, with a wingspan of up to 7 feet. They are gray with a red crown. Some adults are mildly rust-tinged, and all young are.

They dine mostly on the plants and grains found in agricultural fields, but also feed on aquatic invertebrates in marshes, which is where they tend to nest. Sandhill cranes mate for life, so this pair we are watching will probably dance and grow old together until death do they part.

This pair of sandhill cranes does a mating dance in a marsh in Pushaw Stream in Old Town. (Courtesy of Bob Duchesne)

Sandhill cranes are anything but endangered. They breed across northern Canada, from Ontario to British Columbia, and on up into Alaska. I’ve seen them against a backdrop of icebergs on Hudson Bay in Manitoba.

Until now, however, they have not been breeders this far east in North America — which is kinda weird, because they don’t mind our cold, our marshes or our food supply. I guess it was only a matter of time before you and I got to watch them here from our tenuous perch in Tubby.

Another weird thing: 80 percent of the North American population migrates through Nebraska, along the Platte River. A quarter-million may congregate there at any one time in the spring. There are major birding festivals and tours that go there just to watch this world-class spectacle. Frankly, it’s the only reason I can think of to visit Nebraska.

There are 15 species of crane in the world, and all of them dance. During the breeding season, dancing is part of courtship. At other times of year, it’s just a social thing cranes do.

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The pair in front of us may lay an egg or two in this marsh, or they may decide this marsh isn’t quite to their liking and move on. We may have to jump in Tubby again later this summer to see if there are any youngsters. Juveniles stay with their parents for up to 10 months after hatching.

Now that you’ve seen this pair, be on the lookout for others. Pro tip: great blue herons fly with their necks curled back in an S shape. Sandhill cranes fly with their necks straight out. Besides, the cranes bugle almost constantly while in flight. There’s no mistaking them.

Thanks for coming along. Watch your step getting out of the boat.


Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.