In 2000 and 2001, Scott Melvin documented breeding by a pair of Sandhill Cranes at the southern end of Messalonskee Lake in Kennebec Count. This exciting discovery was the first record of breeding by this species in the state.
Multiple pairs now nest in this area. In addition, Maine birders have found other Sandhill Cranes in the late spring and summer. These locations include North Yarmouth, Auburn, Leeds, Chelsea, Manchester, Fryeburg, Smithfield, New Gloucester, Orland, Surry, Unity and Mount Desert Island. At least some of these cranes may be breeders as well.
The breeding range of Sandhill Cranes spans the western two-thirds of Canada into Alaska with some birds breeding in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Most of these birds winter in west Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Mexico.
The birds migrate in groups with families staying together. The birds fly in the efficient V-formation. Birds tend to stop at traditional stop-over areas, the Platte River in Nebraska being one of the best known. In the spring, half a million cranes stop along 70 miles of the Platte River, delighting birders and naturalists.
A resident, non-migratory population occurs in peninsular Florida. The first Sandhill Crane I ever saw flew above me when I was running a road race in Melbourne, Florida. The size, color and the extended neck (different from the S-shaped, recurved neck of a heron in flight) clinched the identification.
We know that some bird ranges are expanding or changing. Most of these changes we attribute to global climate charge. Fifty years ago, Turkey Vultures, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbirds, Blue-winged Warblers and Northern Cardinals were not a part of Maine’s avifauna.
But how do we explain the arrival of Sandhill Cranes as breeders and migrants in Maine when Maine is south of most of their breeding areas?
We know that the population of Sandhill Cranes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and western Ontario is doing well. The populations there nearly doubled between 1980 and 1995 and continues to grow. Some of these birds seem to be dispersing east. Recent nesting has occurred in northwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ontario and Quebec.
We do not know if the recent breeding in Maine represents a true range expansion or a recolonization of a species that was extirpated 200 years or more. We have some evidence from historical accounts from the 1600’s and 1700’s referring to cranes in Maine and Nova Scotia. However, those authors may have confused cranes with herons. It does seem clear that some cranes migrated all along the eastern seaboard in the 1600’s before succumbing to human depredation.
If you want to see these magnificent birds, Messalonskee Lake is the place to go. From I-95, take exit 112 in Augusta and head northwest on Route 27 for about 7 miles. On the right, there is a parking area where a former motorboat launch was located. Scan to the south from the floating dock.
Then go 0.2 mile north to Hammonds Lumber. From the parking lot, scan the marsh. A little patience will usually reveal a crane or two.
Mallards in Maine
Mallards are common birds in Maine. Even the most casual Maine birder has likely seen this species in our state. However, you wouldn’t think so based on the maps in several bird field guides. Jane Coryell has been enjoying Mallards for years on Togus Pond in Augusta. She happened to notice that the Peterson Field Guide, the Stokes Field Guide and the Sibley Guide to Birds (First Edition) all fail to show that Mallards occur in Maine on the range maps! Is this error a coincidence or perpetuation of an error by one author in other author’s field guides? This oversight is yet one more example of why we should be skeptical about what we read. Paper does not refuse ink.