Every spring about this time, Yellowstone mornings are filled with prehistoric calls of sand hill cranes. As a matter of fact, if you are standing with a group of people when the huge birds sound off and someone looks around and asks, “What the heck is that?” you just look at them with disgust!
Everyone should know what a sand hill sounds like.
Like a beacon proclaiming spring has arrived, the cranes show up by the dozens. Here they congregate to feed in grassy fields before they pair up to seek hidden valleys throughout the Yellowstone Region. Upon finding a suitable location, they’ll construct a grassy nest and lay two to three eggs. When they hatch rarely is there such a huge difference between adult and off spring, but when you watch four-foot cranes leading away six-inch chicks, it is a sight to behold.
It is during this time I’ve stumbled into some strange experiences.
A couple of years ago I was crossing an open mountain slope above Pebble Creek when a sand hill crane unexpectedly leaped to its feet just a few feet in front of me. I tried to veer right. He walked right. I tried left, he wouldn’t allow it. I wasn’t going back the way I came so I just stopped and looked at him. He stopped and looked at me. Time passed, then another adult with two colts rose up farther down slope. As they moved off, my crossing guard followed.
I was sitting high in the trees photographing blue grouse above Calcite one spring. Far below me lay a large wet meadow. Presently into this meadow strolled a black bear and yearling cub. I watched as they grazed on wet vegetation. After a time the cub moved off by himself and blundered into a male sand hill crane. The big bird flapped its wings sending the cub scurrying back to mom. But that wasn’t the end of it. The cub soon returned with the sow close behind. The flapping once again stopped the youngster but mom marched right on in. The crane retreated, trying to lead the bear away. The sow had seen this before and began zigzagging through the grass and sage searching for the nest. The crane followed hopelessly. For half an hour this went on. I could almost hear the crane whispering, “you’re getting warmer or you’re cold, very cold”. Eventually the bears gave up and moved on. The other cranes head popped up a short distance away.
Cassie and I came across a sand hill nest in Sunlight Basin years ago. It was in a dry pond bed backed by a steep wooded slope. We returned home and quickly constructed a blind, and then we returned and set it up. Cassie crawled inside and I walked away, hoping the crane couldn’t count. Sure enough, she soon raised up and Cassie got shots of the tiny colt. The next day we went back to try again. As we neared our blind, a dozen little elk calves stood up all around us and began bleating. From over the hill across the pond appeared a dozen barking cows. They proceeded to charge our way sending us scurrying for cover. Within what seemed seconds, the little herd thundered away and it was silent once more.
I took a group of kids from North Carolina hiking down Hell-Roaring a couple of summers ago. A sand hill began squawking in a meadow we were crossing, so I detoured our group around to one side and continued on, right into the nest! Instantly an adult was there. Then it did something very unusual. It started loping off across the sage dragging its huge wings just across the tops. I heard someone ask, “What to we do?” I answered, “Follow him!” And we did! When we were safely away, he stopped his strange antics and just stood watching, proud that he had led us away.