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It’s migration season for Sandhill cranes and other birds at Camas Wildlife Refuge

Living the Wild Life

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.

Most of the fields from Mud Lake to Camas National Wildlife Refuge had no birds last Tuesday as I went looking for sandhill cranes. There were a few geese, trumpeter swans and a hodge-podge of ducks, but I only saw two lonely cranes in one stubble field. That all changed when I got near the southeastern corner of the refuge.

Over 1,000 cranes were feeding, some were dancing and others were flying a short distance only to take flight again to return to their original group. They appeared to be in extended family groups with the young ones testing out their wings for their future long-distance flight to California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or northern “old” Mexico.

As the overnight temperatures dip into the 20s or below, these birds resembling pre-historic creatures come flying in from northern Canada, some of them from their nesting grounds above the Arctic Circle. Being omnivores, they will eat almost everything available to them, but on this fall migration, they seem to prefer grain stubble fields that have not been disced under. The large farms from American Falls north to the Hamer/Dubois area are prime areas for the northern migrating birds to refuel their energy supply.

I watched them for a couple of hours and just before sundown, they needed some water, so they headed for the Sandhole Lake on the refuge. They flew in small groups from two to about 20 birds for the short two-mile flight to quench their thirst.

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Part of a flock of a thousand cranes in a field south of Camas NWR. | Bill Schiess,

While I was watching them, I heard a familiar spring sound; a flock of about 20 snow geese, circled the field before heading toward the refuge. The next morning, they also joined the cranes in the stubble field to refuel as small flocks of cranes appeared to drop in from high altitude as storms in Canada pushed them south.

Our crane fall migration is small compared to the ones in the middle of the nation. Nebraska and the surrounding states have hundreds of thousands migrate through each fall. But our crane gathering is enjoyable to watch and is part of nature’s wonders for eastern Idaho.

When I went out to get some firewood to take the fall chill out of our home Thursday evening, I heard the familiar call of high-flying cranes as a flock headed south. They were too high for me to see but their call was unmistakable, adding to the enjoyment and the magical autumn experience.

Tuesday night, it took over an hour for the cranes to almost empty the field and just as the orange-colored sunset created flying silhouettes of them, only four remained in the field. The clouds parted a little to allow me to photograph the big birds as they headed for water.

The migration around Camas will probably continue into the first two weeks of November. Afternoons and early mornings are the best time to locate the fields being used by the birds to feed in. If you are inclined to watch this annual migration, head out to some large stubble fields and look for them. The Gray’s Lake area, Teton Valley, along with the Mud Lake and Camas NWR areas are good places to look for them.

Also be on the lookout for the arrival of the northern flocks of trumpeter swans to feed in the harvested potato fields as they migrate here to spend the winter. The area just west of the Menan Buttes, the Deer Parks Wildlife Management Area, is where many of them will winter. And if you are lucky and spend enough time outside, you may even see a flock of migrating snow geese or tundra swans.

Here is hoping for a snowy, hard winter to give us the water that we desperately need for next summer. Have an exciting week, and be careful as there may be slick roads to drive on soon and be on the lookout for migrating big game animals on the roads.

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Sandhill cranes heading for Sandhole Lake on Camas NWR as the setting sun colors the western sky. | Bill Schiess,

A small flock of snow geese head for Sandhole Lake for a rest before continuing their southern migration. | Bill Schiess,

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