Funny how quickly perception can change. When I first arrived on St. Catherines Island, I found myself confronted by the exotic and slightly bizarre. In this unfamiliar territory, every new sound and smell brought with it a certain degree of intimidation. The most chilling moment was the first time I heard the call of the island's resident sandhill cranes. In nature, the sound can be heard for miles (online, you can hear it here) and indeed the birds were nowhere in sight when the cry first reached my ears. It rose the hairs on the back of my neck. But, I've heard the sound every day since and now that I know who makes it and what it means, it makes me smile.
Loud and trilling, the peculiar vocalizations that the sandhills produce has to do with the way the trachea coils up inside the sternum. Swans too, have this feature to their anatomy. The cranes I see most often are a pair called Fred and Ethel (pictured below). When I hear their synchronized calls, I know they're looking for breakfast. Even though the couple are free to go where they like - on and off the island - we supplement their diet and so they show up every morning as I make my rounds. If they were foraging for themselves, they'd eat a variety of grains, insects, and plants. Unlike other long-legged marsh birds like herons, they don't dine on fish. However, we give them something called "crane grain," dry dog food, and peanuts. The peanuts are their favorite.
We have five resident sandhill cranes on the island, which strikes as odd anyone who knows these birds mate for life. The bird in the photo that heads this post is named Zipper and "odd" is a fitting description for her. She's fallen head-over-heels for a piece of construction equipment, rather than another crane. Zipper has even been seen to preen herself with motor oil. Perhaps that's the key to her unusually long life. She came to this island as an egg in the 1980's, which makes her much older than the average sandhill crane lifespan of 20 years. Fred and Ethel, as well as our second pair, are the next generation after her.
One of the first questions I had about Fred and Ethel was why they hadn't migrated yet. They and the other three are perfectly capable of flight. Sandhill cranes are native to North America and congregate famously in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico during their migration. What I didn't know then, but I know now, is that Fred, Ethel, and Zipper are Florida sandhill cranes, which are a non-migratory subspecies. So they're not missing out on any great crane conventions. That's good because I'd miss them if they left. Even though they don't scare me anymore, they and the other animals here continue to surprise and fascinate me. It's a weird little slice of heaven, this place. I'm reminded every day of how lucky I am to be here.