What’s nearly five feet tall, dances around like a maniac, hangs out in Portland during the winter, squawks like nothing you’ve ever heard, has a bright red cap, and looks like a dinosaur?
A sandhill crane!!
I’m not sure you’ve truly lived until you’ve seen and heard a sandhill crane. heh. Okay, perhaps you have, but they’re a pretty amazing bird. They’re a fall and winter corollary to the spring and summer osprey: about the time the osprey take off for southern pastures down in Mexico, the sandhill cranes show up in their southern pastures, in this case, around Suavie Island and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
(Learn more about them with this sweet little video from Oregon Field Guide! That’s why you’re here reading a bike blog, right, to learn about birds?;) Though some fun things to note might be that they mate for life and can live over 30 years! And though many continue further south, there’s a whole population that flies down from Alaska or British Columbia and hangs around the Portland area all winter, making this the furthest south they go.
I think these lovely birds first came onto my radar way back in 2010, when I worked for a brief stint at Kingbird Farms, right after I left teaching and before I took my first multi-day bike trip, down the CA coast. Mike from Kingbird is a bird enthusiast, and their farm was, if I remember correctly, in the flight path for a million cranes who tucked themselves in over at Cosumnes River Preserve at night.
Their crazy amazing honks — sort of like geese but more guttural, as though they’re gargling, a description that doesn’t nearly do justice to how cool it actually sounds in real life — provided a soundtrack to days on the farm the way they would later provide a soundtrack to work spent with my crew out at Sauvie Island. It’s one of the best noises of fall. (Listen to it here! — I’m partial to the second recording.)
Cranes have come to mean fall to me the way osprey have come to mean spring. So when the weather starts to turn and I start noticing winter ducks in the waterways of Portland again, I take a bike excursion out to Sauvie Island to welcome back the cranes.
Sauvie Island is a fantastic place to bike anyway, with tons of different (and seasonal) things to do — pumpkin patch? u-pick berries? bird watching? nude bathing? one of the only freshwater lighthouses? All Sauvie attractions. I was thinking about all that this year as I was biking around with my binoculars, trying not to freeze, and I got it in my head to make a map of all the places I love out there. It’s bird-centric, since that’s where my head was this time, but has some other fun things on there too.
I know it looks a little scary, but that’s just cuz the text trips all over itself when it’s zoomed out. Just zoom the heck in:)
The red lines are my bike tracks this time around, two out-and-backs, the second (westerly) of which was supposed to be a loop but it turns out the road isn’t actually a road that’s open for travel right now:
And then there’s a variety of my notes, a hodgepodge of places I love, birds I typically see where, and whatever else I was inspired to note when I made the map. Of course, this isn’t everything awesome about Sauvie Island, just what came to mind when I was thinking about it this time around.
And the cranes? Oh, I welcomed them! :) They were plentiful, honking away. And they were joined, of course, by a bajillion other winter birds: snow geese, American wigeon and green-winged teal (who get a tie honorable mention for my favorite bird sounds ever), so, so, so many others. Every so often a bald eagle would fly overhead and all the geese would rise up from the ground and water in a huge, simultaneous, frenzied cloud, which is really something you haven’t truly lived if you haven’t seen.
(the cool thing about snow geese is that they’re all white except the bottom of the tips of their wings, which flash black when they fly. So when a bunch of them take to the air at once, it’s like a cloud full of black-and-white-flashing confetti)
Something else awesome about a fall or winter welcome to Suavie Island birds: the sounds. It’s so quiet at Sauvie Island, especially in the winter when things feel quiet and peaceful anyway, which really makes the soundtrack of birds all the more impressive. It’s like hearing a million different distant conversations, birds you can see and way more that you can’t, without all the traffic sounds you often otherwise hear in Portland. (Though there is the occasional gunshot during hunting season.)
I’m pretty sure I could sit there all day and listen to birds. Ha! Which is about what I did.
Other honorable mention places to see and hear winter birds in the Portland area:
- Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge
- Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden
- The canyon/Reed Lake at Reed College
Anything I’m missing? Add it in the comments!
Also, welcome back, sandhill cranes! :)