Sandhill cranes make rare pit stop in county

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By Jenny Hartley

A long-legged bird made a rare stop in Lancaster County last week.

West Doc Garris Road resident Cricket Harper said he saw a group of six strange birds eating in his open fields on Jan. 2. Harper's son, Tim, saw the birds during a deer hunting expedition on Dec. 29.

At first, Harper thought the birds were turkeys.

"Then I thought, 'A turkey is not gray,'" Harper said. "We were just so excited to see those birds."

Turns out the birds were sandhill cranes, not an endangered bird, but one rare to this area. Harper called the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and a DNR biologist told him that the birds were likely a mated pair and their offspring. The group was probably on a rest stop during migration. The birds also may have been blown off course.

Sandhill cranes are often spotted at Santee Wildlife Refuge in the state's Lowcountry, but rarely this far inland.

The large wading bird has a gray body, white cheeks, chin and upper throat and a bright red cap. Its legs and feet are black, and it has a dark-colored bill and yellow eyes.

It breeds from Siberia to Alaska east across arctic Canada to Hudson Bay and south to western Ontario, according to www.whatbird.com. There are also isolated populations in the Rocky Mountains, northern prairies, Great Lakes region and in Mississippi, Georgia and Florida.

The sandhill crane spends winters in California's Central Valley, and across southern states from Arizona to Florida. Its preferred habitats include large freshwater marshes, prairie ponds and marshy tundra, and they may also be found on prairies and grain fields during migration and in winter.

Blown off course?

The birds that showed up at Harper's land may have been blown off their migration course by recent winter storms in the central United States, said Laurel Barnhill, SCDNR bird conservation coordinator. They were likely eating insects or waste grain in the grass at Harper's home.

Sandhill cranes show up intermittently along South Carolina's coast during the winter, and having a group in Lancaster County is exciting information, she said.

"It's always neat to me where birds actually show up, and that people are interested enough to take the time to let us know," Barnhill said.

Jennifer Koches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Charleston said the sandhills are a rarity in the state, but South Carolina is starting to see increased numbers of them. Her office has received calls about sandhills on the golf courses of Myrtle Beach's Grand Strand.

It seems, at least for the time being, that the sandhills may be forgoing any intentions of a coastal stop for a longer stay with the Harpers. Harper said Tuesday that the six sandhills were seen again on his property by his sons as recently as Saturday.

Whooping crane watch

Even more rare to the state, and the country, is the whooping crane. There are only 53 of the endangered whooping cranes migrating in the wild on the Eastern seaboard, and for the past three years, five to six of those birds have wintered in South Carolina.

State and federal wildlife officials are awaiting the arrival of a mated pair of whooping cranes to show up in coastal Georgetown County. Because they are so rare, each whooping crane is banded on its legs with a number, and this particular pair is equipped with transmitters for tracking. Their signal hasn't been picked up since Nov. 22.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They are primarily white, with a red crown and black mask.

"People need to be on the lookout for this pair," Koches said. "We're expecting them any day."

Contact Jenny Hartley at 283-1151 or jhartley@thelancasternews.com