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.
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.
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?
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.”
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
- Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, 100 Savannah Blvd., Micanopy.
- University of Florida Beef Teaching Unit, 3721 SW 23rd Terrace, Gainesville.
- County Road 225 along Orange Lake in unincorporated Evinston
- Circle B Bar Reserve, entrance on south side of SR 540 (Winter Lake Road) between US 98 and Thornhill Road, Lakeland
- Myakka State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota.
- Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
- The Yearling restaurant