Look for sandhill cranes in Eastern Iowa

Birding column: Otter Creek Marsh, Cone Marsh welcome migrating birds

Sandhill  cranes in flight over Cone Marsh in June.  The main dike, accessed east off V Ave, can be a great trail to wal
Sandhill cranes in flight over Cone Marsh in June. The main dike, accessed east off V Ave, can be a great trail to walk for a chance at a flyover. Walk east down a short, grassy access road and you are there. (Brando Caswell/correspondent)

Cranes are a majestic group of birds and revered among cultures throughout the world.

The sights and sounds of these large, graceful birds are enough to stir the interests of most nature enthusiasts.

The sandhill crane is the smaller of the two species endemic to North America. Unlike the federally endangered whooping crane, sandhill crane is doing fairly well. Most spend winter in the southern United States where they feed in fields and pasture lands in the day. Roosting at night in large numbers on shallow lakes and rivers offers ample protection from predators.

Sandhill crane mates for life. They will nest in wetlands, such as marshes. Nests may be located at high spots along standing marsh water or can be in dryer portions, such as on the fringe of a wetland. They will build the base of the nest out of dried cattails, grasses and sedges. To this bulkier base, they later add a bowl-shaped portion, lined with smaller pieces of vegetation.

While sitting on the eggs, they will often lay their head and neck down completely against the ground to literally not stick out. Females lay one or two eggs with usually one fledgling, or colt, surviving long enough to roam around with its parents. Sandhills once commonly nested in Iowa, however, hunting and habitat destruction led to a 98-year breeding hiatus.

Adult sandhills are largely grayish overall, with long legs and neck. The backside, including tail feathers, is often tan. A red crown adorns the top of the head with a white cheek below. The bill is black. Fledglings are a fluffy yellowish overall. As they mature, the young will obviously start to look more like adults, but often have a more rusty appearance, with a rusty hind neck and crown.

In flight, sandhills fly like most other cranes, with neck and legs extended outward.

Two things are rather impressive about sandhill migration. The first is size. In certain parts of the country, they will migrate in groups in the tens of thousands. While one or a few cranes can create an astonishingly loud sound, thousands of cranes becomes a cacophony almost deafening to the ears. Such is the case along the Platte River in central Nebraska, where hundreds of thousands of sandhills will stage over the course of their migration. At this stoppage point, they spend time feeding and building energy reserves for the rest of their journey northward to the Arctic.

I have never been to Kearney, Neb., to see the crane migration, but I have heard many stories from friends. The sandhill crane migration is one of nature’s top spectacles in North America. It is an absolute “bucket list” event.


Finding Sandhill Cranes is a bit easier than you might think. Two great places to look for sandhill crane in Eastern Iowa are Otter Creek Marsh in Tama County and Cone Marsh in Louisa County. Although they can be very cryptic in tall marsh grasses, a single bird can be heard from well over a mile away in the right conditions. Listen for a high-pitched, rattling call both overhead and on the ground. Making an acoustic connection with bugling cranes is hard to forget.

l Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. His graduate degree centered on dating continental collisions within the Precambrian Canada Shield. Bird-watching and nature photography are among his favorite hobbies. He lives with his wife and son in Marion. Email brandon.caswell83@gmail.com with birding-related questions, including questions about activities.


One thing that gets me every now and then is not making sure I have ample space on my camera’s memory card.

In this day and age, memory cards, even cards with hundreds of gigabytes of storage, are relatively inexpensive. No matter how big your card is, there can be a point where you might run out of storage while getting those once-in-a-lifetime shots.

To avoid this problem, you can do a few things. Make sure after you’ve transferred photo files to your computer you wipe your card’s memory. Always double check to see if you’ve put all the photos you want on your computer before wiping the card. It is a headache to get files back from an erased card, but not impossible. Another easy solution is to always have a backup card with a decent amount of storage with you. You also could technically just delete everything on your card in a few minutes and start shooting again. Oftentimes, however, there are precious shots from earlier that day or last time you were out that you haven’t yet downloaded to a computer. You also can manually delete photos in the field, but don’t get caught doing that during an amazing photo opportunity.

Don’t run out of memory when the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself.


— Waterfowl, especially ducks, should be in great abundance on lakes and marshes during the first half of April. Cone Marsh Wildlife Management Area in Louisa County is a great place see both diving and puddle ducks while keeping an eye and ear out for sandhill crane. Otter Creek Marsh in Tama County also is a great place in April. Of course, the Mississippi River is an important migratory pathway for waterfowl in the spring.

— Eastern phoebe, a small dark to light grayish flycatcher, should be singing and observed in full force by early April.

— Warblers should start trickling in by mid-April. In the latter half of the month, look for yellow-throated, pine, palm, yellow, orange-crowned, Nashville and northern parula. If you don’t know what type of habitat to search for them, consult a field guide or do a simple internet search.

— Quite a few sparrow species should be detectable throughout the month of April.



— April 3 and 17, 8 a.m. — Kent Park Bird Walk with leader Rick Hollis. Meet at the Conservation Education Center.

Note: All Iowa City Bird Club meetings are at Big White House, 1246 12th Ave in Coralville.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.