Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cranes, Otters and Eagles, Oh My!

River Otter, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The recent winter weather had left me stir-crazy and wishing for adventure, so I headed south to visit some great wildlife areas that are not too far from Indianapolis. These areas are only about an hour from Indy and well worth the drive.

First stop was Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. This place is great for waterfowl viewing and is a very reliable spot in the winter time to see River Otters. Today, we spotted nine. These playful creatures will frequent areas where there are holes in the ice. I could have watched these rascals for hours as they bounded across the ice and slid into the water. Some were snacking on fish while sprawling out on the ice, just lounging around. One family unit we observed had five members all playing with each other and having a ball!

Later in the day, we headed a little farther south to Ewing Bottoms, an area located near Brownstown, IN, along W. Spring Street, that currently is hosting thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes. The numbers were difficult to estimate, since the cranes were covering an area approximately two miles wide and were flying in small groups in and out of the area. They were, also, well camouflaged when walking among the cornstalk remnants. I visited Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area this past fall, and the estimated population for the day I was there was approximately 13,000 cranes. I believe there were more than that at Ewing Bottoms, today. The cranes we observed were in a bigger area and seemed more dense that what I had seen that day at J-P. The sight was phenomenal as the cranes streamed into the fields from overhead, calling loudly to one another. You can hear their unique call on the What Bird site if you click on "Listen to Call" halfway down the page.

My friend, Andrew Mertz, was able to get this picture
with his camera placed up to his binoculars.

Here is my attempt at the same technique with a group of sandhills that

are closer to the road. Note how the birds blend right in with the surrounding landscape.

Sandhill Cranes have a unique appearance. The adults have a red crown that is not covered in feathers, but bare skin. This skin is covered with small red bumps called papillae and short, hairlike bristles. The juvenile's crown will be feathered until their first molt.

This is a Sandhill Crane from Texas, showing the unique red crown.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Indiana is an important stopover area for these cranes. The eastern population of Sandhill Cranes winter in Southern Georgia and Central Florida. They will visit wetland areas in Indiana and neighboring states to refuel for their long flight back to Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario to their breeding areas.

Last stop was Starve Hollow State Recreation Area, about six miles south of Brownstown. This place is a great place to view Bald Eagles. Today we could only find two, but we had a terrific look at one that was perched up in a tree near the road. I did some odd contortions and leaned out of the window while snapping this shot with the camera pressed up to the binoculars.

These three areas make for a great day trip from Indianapolis. So, if you have the winter blahs, head south for some great wildlife watching!StumbleUpon

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