Unlike most Florida snowbirds, greater sandhill cranes have already begun their migration back north.
The big birds, once near extinction, stop off at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just north of Medaryville on their way to breeding grounds in the northern reaches of the eastern United States and Canada.
Though it might seem a little premature to leave the warm weather of Florida, Texas and southern Georgia, some of the cranes arrive as early as December, with more and more arriving in January and peaking in late January and mid-February, with thousands of sandhill cranes congregating at once.
Some come in twos or small groups in haphazard formations, while others arrive in huge, noisy flocks that nearly blacken the skyline. They touch down lightly on 300-acre Goose Pasture to rest and feed before making the final leg of their long journey north to make their nests and breed. It's believed they've been stopping here for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. It's quite a spectacle.
They're all gone by the end of March, with the exception of the resident, year-round flock of about 2,000 cranes.
Even more sandhill cranes stop by the refuge on their way south: This past fall, the greatest total counted was more than 25,500 cranes on Dec. 11, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources reported on Jasper-Pulaski's sandhill crane Web page, www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm.
The birds stand 3 1/2 to 4 feet tall, have a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet, weigh 10 to 12 pounds and have a life span of 25 to 35 years, according to various sources.
Best viewing times are at sunrise, when they come out of the cover of the marsh to feed, and just before sunset, when they return from foraging in surrounding fields, the DNR Web page says.
While standing on the crane viewing deck at Jasper-Pulaski, you may witness an unusual sandhill crane behavior called “painting.” The birds preen mud into their feathers, which helps them conceal themselves by blending in with their brown spring habitat.
If you're unable to make it for the northern migration, consider going up to catch the majestic birds on their way south. Ninety percent of the eastern crane population stops at the Jasper-Pulaski refuge every fall. Some arrive in late August, but the peak viewing typically is mid- to late November.
Visitors must register at the shelter near the headquarters building. Maps and information are available. Bring your camera and binoculars and be sure to dress warmly. Yes, there are restrooms.