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Sandhill Cranes in Central PA

Alex Lamoreaux|

Sandhill Crane range map (Sibley Guide to Birds)

Sandhill Crane range map (Sibley Guide to Birds)

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.

Sandhill Crane at Curtin Wetlands, Centre County (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Sandhill Crane at Curtin Wetlands in April 2011, Centre County, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

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

Centre County:

16 Sandhill Cranes migrating over Centre County in December (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

16 Sandhill Cranes migrating over Centre County in December (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

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.

The apparently over-wintering flock of 5 Sandhill Cranes along Tadpole Rd in Centre County, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The apparently over-wintering flock of 5 Sandhill Cranes along Tadpole Rd in Centre County, PA (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Huntingdon County: 

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!

Additional References:

Birds of Central Pennsylvania by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove

  • Lewis Grove

    I found 2 on Myton Road, near Mooresville, a few hours before Birding Cup (clutch!) May 2, 2008.

    • Wow, cool! I’d love to get cranes on the Birding Cup! I can add that to the list above.

  • Carl

    Maybe want to add this to the Centre county Sandhill list, my dad (Kurt Engstrom) had a flock of 12 Sandhill Cranes fly over his head while deer hunting at the Scotia Barrens on November 30, 2009.

    • Awesome – I can add that to the PA historical account on eBird. Thanks for letting me know!

  • J.A. Stratford

    Nice article. Things are looking up for the US population of Sandhill Cranes so it wouldn’t be surprising that populations spillover into PA. Here’s the US-wide breeding bird survey trend http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/graphs11/s02060US.png

  • C Weaver

    Today is March 11, 2014
    There are 5 sandhill cranes in a field at the corner of Tadpole Road and Whitehall Road in Centre County

  • jen1001

    we have them in our backyard in the bog area. we have 11 acres and lots of wetland and I finally played the audio for their call… made me laugh because daily that call is heard here and I call back at them. Today, I got a photo of one! it was far and i only used my cell phone… but its a large bird and what a beauty to see that large creature take flight! PS. we live in Monroe county in Saylorsburg Pennsylvania.

    • Andrew Weber

      Hi Jen,

      This looks like a Great Blue Heron, which is pretty similarly sized to a crane, but more common across the state. Pretty cool to have them in your backyard.

      • jen1001

        hi andrew… looking at the image of a GBH this was not that. Then played an audio for the call the GBH makes and it wasnt that sound either. Back to the sound of the SC on an audio file and its the same sound happening in my back yard right now. 🙂 thanks!

        • Andrew Weber

          Perhaps the image is confusing the identification, but it seems to be showing the white face, black eyeline, and light colored bill of a Great Blue Heron. I would expect to be able to see the red crown and rusty colored body on a Sandhill Crane.

  • Jamon Wagner

    Lancaster County, West Donegal Twp. I’ve spotted three in a local field for the past two days. They appear in a local farmer’s field in late afternoon/early evening.

    Attached is a picture of one of them.