The Day I Became a Sandhill Crane

It started out to be a day just like any other day. I had set out to photograph nature in one of my favorite wildlife refuge, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. While driving in West Palm Beach, all of a sudden I heard a loud rattling call that sounded like this, kar-r-r-r-o-o-o… Slowing down in hopes of what I thought this sound might be, I spotted him grazing in the wetlands of The Apoxee Trail. The Apoxee Wilderness Trail features a mix of boardwalks, crushed limestone, and natural surfaces underfoot on a loop that includes a section of the Owahee Trail, a lengthy berm that runs through all of Grassy Waters Preserve, the perfect ecosystem for the endangered Florida Sandhill Crane. “Florida Wetlands”-Melvin Rutledge The habitat of the Florida Sandhill Crane is fields, prairies, marshes and bogs. They nest around the marshes and bogs, creating nests right on the ground. I asked myself, could this be my chance to witness a family of Florida’s unofficial state bird. I soon found myself making a detour from my original destination and prepared myself for an unexpected adventure. As I wandered down several boardwalks and through lush palm hammocks before I encountered a fork in the trail, I could hear the call of the Florida Sandhill Crane. Not knowing which way to turn, I flipped a coin in my head and took my chances to right. Tunneling through tropical hammocks and across a large wet prairie, there were plenty of wildlife sightings – particularly wading birds. It was a fascinating hike showcasing the sheet flow of water through habitats that thrive in humidity and dampness, and then all of a sudden, there he was, the proud daddy to be. “Hello George”-Melvin Rutledge The cranes build a nest out of marsh and plant material pulled up from around the site, with both sexes participating in the home decorations. And this was not the first time for this pair, as Sandhill Cranes mate for life and will frequent the same nesting ground from year to year. Usually the female will lay a pair of eggs and rarely will both eggs hatch, let alone will the chick survive through its first year of life. Duties are split for the nesting period for the next 30 days with the female predominantly having night duty. As the day came to an end, I decided to name the soon to be family. George became the father, as he suddenly took to flight landing a couple of hundred yards into the marsh. There in the distance, I saw Gracie, the mom, for the very first time. “Say Goodnight Gracie”-Melvin Rutledge That night I focused on the next day, preparing for what was the day “I Became a Sandhill Crane”. It might sound like a dream or even a fairy tale that my silly mind conjured up, but the truth being George and Gracie and kids would soon have a visitor from their new uncle and friend for the next week or two. Driving to the park, I all of a sudden saw the pair was out grazing in the bog. I quickly prepared for my hike down the trail and organized myself for the rest of the day. Then, I was welcomed with the most beautiful sight; ’The Crane’ family chicks had arrived that very night. “We Are Family”-Melvin Rutledge The young cranes, called colts, who I soon named, Jack and Jill, are able to leave the nest hours after hatching. This is called precocial and many ground-nesting birds do this so they can be less vulnerable to predators like foxes and coyotes. Precocial birds hatch with down feathers, open eyes and the ability to leave the nest within hours of hatching. “Jill”-Melvin Rutledge As I clicked for the next few hours I became enthralled with the social behavior of the new family. This was one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles that I’ve witnessed. I was so immersed in the unique experience, with my head buried into my lens; I suddenly heard this tapping on the end of my lenses’ sun shield. I suddenly raised my head to see George, inches from me. Frighten at first, all I could think was that I should say ‘hello’, and I did, ‘Hello, George”. He greeted me and returned to me a fluffing of his feathers. He soon turned away and began forging for food for his newborn colts. “Head In The Sand”-Melvin Rutledge Sandhill cranes are omnivores. They eat a wide variety of material including seeds, grains, insects, snails, crayfish, tubers, lizards, snakes, small rodents and frogs. “Do You Serve Frog Legs”-Melvin Rutledge As the days went by for the next two weeks, I could see that Jack and Jill were very attached to each other and their parents. An extremely close family and such a beautiful sight to see. All of these observations were interesting facts, I suppose, but their importance as a symbol of wildness should not be overlooked. “Mommy-Tell Me About The Bees”-Melvin Rutledge Nature and humans need food, water and shelter to survive. All of these keep us alive, but to keep our compassion alive and healthy we need more. For me, amongst others, wilderness and wild places untouched by the hands of humans are a complete prerequisite. The number of refuges are decreasing as our population increases, but there are still some areas left, which allow us to get away and reorganize ourselves to a much slower and quieter way of life. “Why We Should Eat Insects”-Melvin Rutledge Florida Sandhill Cranes are a non-migratory species of the Sandhill Cranes. They inhabit freshwater marshes, prairies and pastures throughout peninsular Florida. Degradation or direct losses of habitat due to drainage or conversion for development or agricultural use are the primary threats facing Florida Sandhill Cranes. Will future generations be able to see these wetland beauties? “The Backstroke”-Melvin Rutledge The end of my visit with the family of cranes was coming to a close; it was on this last day that I realized they had accepted me into their crane family. Walking down to say goodbye, I passed another pair of Sandhill Cranes. Stopping for a while to observe this pair, I soon travelled further to see my new family. They were down the trail about a mile away, waiting for me to play for the last and final day. “Here Comes Uncle Clay”-Melvin Rutledge They seemed a bit weary and a little confused. George was standing up tall, as the colts were close by Gracie’s side. Suddenly I saw the other pair approach. And so did George, with his recognizable call he let out a sound that signaled his family to retreat to the safety of the bog. “Call Of The Wild”-Melvin Rutledge For the next few minutes he continued to squawk. These are sounds, which can make us, remember what nature really is, the howl of a wolf, the roar of a lion, or the trumpeting of an elk. But, when I heard the call of George I couldn’t help but stop and listen. “Sandhill Crane Showdown”-Melvin Rutledge I then stood up and followed Jack and Jill with Gracie by my side. We travelled down the path for a mile or two as I saw the other pair take flight for another site. George soon joined us for the rest of my time and was very happy to have Uncle Clays’ help for the remainder of the day. As Jack and Jill played by the waters edge, it was then that I knew I was part of this clan. “I Think I Hear Music”-Melvin Rutledge But the time had come for me to say my goodbyes. I will miss ‘The Cranes’ and wish them the best and good luck in the rest of their lives…Goodbye George and Gracie and goodbye to the little ones, I will never forget you, my new little friends, Jack and Jill. “Farewell Jack and Jill”-Melvin Rutledge