The Sandhill Crane is a widespread and common migrant, breeder, and/or resident across most of North America. This large bird breeds in extensive wetlands and winters in agricultural areas. Cranes have been rare visitors to the Northeastern states until the past few decades, when the entire population began to rapidly increase in number. In the 1930’s, the eastern population was estimated to be just 300 birds. Today there are an estimated 800,000 Sandhill Cranes across the continent, with the eastern population estimated to be around 65,000 individuals and growing (USFWS Status and Harvest of Sandhill Cranes). There are multiple subspecies of Sandhill Crane found around the country, including the “Lesser” Sandhill Crane which breeds in the Arctic, the “Greater” Sandhill Crane of the northern United States, and the non-migratory “Florida” Sandhill Cranes. There is also an intermediate population of “Lesser” and “Greater” in central Canada.
During the 1990’s “Greater” Sandhill Crane sightings in Pennsylvania started to become more regular during spring and fall migration, and during winter. Nesting was confirmed for the first time in Pennsylvania in 1993, when a pair of adults was seen with a juvenile in Lawrence County (Atlas of Breeding Birds of Pennsylvania). Nesting slowly spread around to other locations in Northwestern PA, and then nesting was also confirmed in Northeastern PA during the 2nd breeding bird atlas. Throughout the rest of the state cranes continue to be rare visitors, although increasingly reported. Merrill Wood kept very detailed historical bird records for central PA but didn’t have any reports of Sandhill Cranes prior to 1983. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that there were 3 crane sightings in central PA, and since 2000 there have been nearly annual sightings in the region. Since 2004 there has been a peak in sightings statewide. Most Sandhill Cranes found in central PA are seen during spring migration in March and April, and occasionally during November through February. Singles birds or small family groups are usually seen, although there have been impressive flocks of 53 and 16 birds seen migrating over Centre County! It’s most likely that the cranes seen in central PA are from the breeding grounds around the northern Great Lakes, but certainly some sightings may be birds that bred in Pennsylvania, New York, or Ohio.
Recent and Interesting Sightings in Central PA
2001 – February 27th one Sandhill Crane was seen by Jim Dunn at Curtin Wetlands, north of State College (eBird checklist).
2006 – March 6th an incredible 53 Sandhill Cranes were seen flying over State College, heading south (eBird checklist).
2007 – November 13th three cranes were seen by Chuck Widman as they flew over Tussey Mtn at Jo Hays Vista, heading south (eBird checklist)
2009 – November 30th Kurt Engstrom saw a flock of 12 cranes flying over Scotia Barrens while he was out hunting (eBird checklist).
2011 – December 18th Drew Weber and I spotted 16 Sandhill Cranes flying south over the Rockview fields during the State College CBC (eBird checklist).
2012 – April 14th Drew and I found a single Sandhill Crane at Curtin Wetlands during a PSU Ornithology Lab field trip, and it remained there until the 18th (eBird checklist).
2014 – January 4th Alyssia Church found a flock of 5 Sandhill Cranes along Tadpole Road, west of State College (eBird checklist). The cranes have remained through the end of January, setting a new record for length-of-stay in central Pennsylvania. I believe this may be an extended family flock – when watching them, it is clear there is an adult male and female (easily IDed by size, plumage, and by the bright red patch on their foreheads), two juveniles, with a fifth bird that is either another adult or subadult/immature. After being undeterred to move to warmer areas even with the ‘Polar Vortex’ and a number of other extreme weather conditions since they first turned up, I would guess these cranes are actually attempting to over-winter here! If they do over-winter here, they would probably return to the Great Lakes region for the summer.
1992 – January 13th one Sandhill Cranes was reported at Lake Raystown by Robert Criswell (eBird checklist). This was the first record for Huntingdon County.
2004 – April 20th Jim Dunn found a single crane near Mooresville (eBird checklist).
2008 – March 23rd Greg Grove spotted 3 Sandhill Cranes flying over the Tussey Mtn Hawkwatch, heading south (eBird checklist).
2008 – May 2nd Lewis Grove followed in his Dad’s footsteps and found 2 cranes on Myton Road near Mooresville a few hours before the Birding Cup, a local birding competition (eBird checklist).
2011 – April 29th Jon Kauffman found a single crane near Happy Hills/Morgan Rd (eBird checklist).
The future of Sandhill Cranes in Central Pennsylvania
With increased wetland protection and creation, as well as increased birder effort it is likely that Sandhill Cranes will continue to be seen on a regular or increasing basis in central Pennsylvania. Currently Centre, Huntingdon, and Snyder are the only central PA counties with crane records in eBird, and so there are still plenty of opportunities to add a 1st county record in Clinton, Clearfield, Mifflin, and Juniata. Search for them in wetlands or agricultural areas, where it should be hard to miss a 3 or 4 foot tall bird walking around! With a number of beautiful wetlands and marshes around central PA such as Mill Hall Wetlands, Curtin Wetlands, and Julian Wetlands it is possible that cranes will one day nest in this region. Remember to enter your sightings on eBird so that we can continue to monitor their spread throughout the northeast!
Birds of Central Pennsylvania by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove