When my friend and wildlife scout Milla texted me that she had found 500 Sandhill Cranes in a field in Ortona, FL, I told her to stop licking Cane Toads. She sent a picture and a set of coordinates and offered me the task of checking it out myself.
Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) range throughout North America but the Florida Sandhill Crane (G.c. pratensis), which is non-migratory, is considered an endangered subspecies, numbering about 4000 birds. The thin, four foot tall, grayish-brown birds with red caps are not differentiated by physical appearance, but by their migratory behaviors. The northern subspecies arrive in the Sunshine State around October and leave around March, while the Florida subspecies enjoy the rays year round.
Urban development of the prairies and pasturelands of central Florida has led to the decline of the Florida subspecies. On the bright side, the unusually rainy winter of 2010 promises to be a boon for the birds as nest success increases in wet winters.
Although I have seen pairs of Florida Sandhills from time to time, the massive flock of birds that I spotted in the sod farm near Ortona was most certainly a flock of northern “snowbirds”. These sandhills were probably feasting on insects, worms and to the chagrin of the sod farmers, grass seed.