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Migrating sandhill cranes in Florida: Quite a sight, sound

Single Sandhill Crane at Paynes Prairie Preserve in Florida

Sandhill crane. Photo by Stephen L. Tabone.

I wait all year to enjoy Florida’s winters, and not just for the cooler weather that makes it a joy to hike, bike and kayak.

It’s also the peak time to spot some amazing wildlife.

One spectacular scene worth seeing and hearing are migrating sandhill cranes in Florida.

Florida has a small resident population of sandhill cranes, so you may spot two or three in fields all year.  But the migratory birds come in huge flocks. When hundreds are together, their loud call can be heard for a half mile. (Listen to this.)

The cranes migrate in late fall from Canada and the upper Midwest and head north in late February or March.

Sandhill cranes have long legs, wingspans of 5 to 7 feet and stand 3 to 5  feet tall. They’re about the size of great blue herons. What I love: Their pinkish red heads.

Sandhill Crane Up Close in Florida

Sandhill crane at Paynes Prairie Preserve. Photo by Stephen L. Tabone.

Most years the best place to see flocks of sandhill cranes is Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Micanopy near Gainesville.  In 2008, there were 5,000 migrating sandhill cranes massed there! That year, a dozen whooping cranes, among the most endangered birds in North America,  joined the flock.  To judge by the photos, it was an amazing assembly of big birds.

Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie Preserve, 2008

Record number of sandhill cranes came to at Paynes Prairie Preserve in 2008. Photo by Stephen L. Tabone.

In subsequent years, however, the migrating sandhill crane population was smaller and you are likely to see a few hundred or a few dozen in a range of wetlands along the scenic roads of north-central Florida.

Where can you see a flock of sandhill crames?

Flock of sandhill cranes take flight at Paynes Prairie Preserve, 2008

Flock of sandhill cranes take flight at Paynes Prairie Preserve, 2008. Photo by Stephen L. Tabone.

Don Pearson, an environmental specialist with Florida State Parks, said every morning, you can see a few hundred sandhill cranes foraging in the cow pastures within 50 feet of the road at the University of Florida Beef Teaching Unit on Williston Road in Gainesville.

Another good places to look is along County Road 225 along Orange Lake, unincorporated Evinston, near Gainesville.

The rest of the migrating cranes are scattered through wetlands in central and northern Florida this year, Pearson said. “They’ll keep flying and go where the conditions are right.”

Sandhill Crane at Paynes Prairie Preserve, Florida

Sandhill crane at Paynes Prairie Preserve. Photo by Stephen L. Tabone.

A few more places to look:  Each year, migratory sandhill cranes also go to Circle B Bar Reserve near Lakeland, which is a great favorite among birders.  A good number of sandhill cranes have been spotted at Myakka State Park  near Sarasota this winter.

Here’s a winter weekend suggestion: Head to the lovely area around Paynes Prairie and visit nearby Cross Creek and the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, which celebrates the life and work of the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Yearling. Have a lunch or dinner at the historic nearby restaurant called The Yearling. Then drive along some country roads and watch for cranes.  Whether you see them or not, you’ll have a great time.

Links and resources for seeing sandhill cranes

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Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
University of Florida Beef Teaching Unit
Evinston, FL 32667
Circle Bar B Reserve
Myakka River State Park
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