PLAIN GROVE TOWNSHIP, Pa.– They crept through the mist covered Black Swamp of Lawrence County creating wet sucking sounds as they trudge forward. The muddy squelches added to the natural soundtrack of bird songs and frogs croaking. The Red-winged Blackbird calls skipped across the wetlands bouncing off the peeping mating calls of recently thawed amphibians. The voices of Wood Frogs and Cope’s Gray Treefrogs folded over the lower bass of Bullfrog croaking.
The swamp was teaming with small frogs—enhancing what is a breeding habitat for some migrating avian species. As we transition into the first days of a new season, the marsh will swell with tadpoles and insects. The fish, invertebrates and other organisms offer a robust menu for a variety of animals.
The frog population is preparing to mate during these first warm days of spring will offer a reliable food source for the larger returning waterfowl. The creatures of the mud and water are just some of the items of the omnivore’s menu; at least until the season delivers more plants and invertebrates. Small amphibians can make up part of the diet of Mallard and Ring-necked Ducks, Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes, all on our birding list for the day.
Expansion of the Sandhill Crane
Patience pays off for our birding group when we situated ourselves along the shoreline of a shallow body of water. We were surprised by a loud, vibrating clamor that sounds something like an off-key plastic toy trumpet. The call was quickly repeated. Our guidebooks confirmed this was a mating call for the Sandhill. While we strain our eyes through the binoculars, the common cattails obscured any view of the cranes. The brief call of the Sandhill was replaced by geese and ducks flying overhead.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Sandhill Crane has only recently taken up part-time residency in this region. However, you will find massive flocks featuring tens of thousands of the cranes west of the Mississippi, particularly in the Great Lakes region and parts of Canada. Wetlands along the Platte River in Nebraska are a popular destination to watch these flocks.
Eventually we move back to the Volant Strips portion of this IBA and we spot a small flock of Sandhill Cranes. They’re in a freshly plowed field next to large grain silos situated across the road from what appeared to be a conveyor belt for the sand plant.
Here, in the middle of industrial and agriculture activity, we witness these large, gray-bodied, gangly crimson-capped birds. A dozen sifting through the tilled soil for bits of grain, probably corn, and possibly an occasional toad.
The Volant Strips and Black Swamp habitat is clearly a mix of marsh, grasslands and surface mining operations to create an odd balance for the crane. We witnessed their feeding in the field for cultivated grain. The Audubon Society reports they will eat large amounts of it. In Lawrence County, farmers produce heavy amounts of corn along with soybeans, wheat and barley. The rich wetlands and nearby woods will also serve a diverse population of wild plants yielding roots, seeds and berries. This area is also home to scores of amphibians, snakes, rodents and nestling birds. In a nutshell, if the cranes can eat it, they probably will. The Sandhill is identified as an opportunistic species.
The Sandhill flocks migrating here are small. They can’t compare to the scale found to the west. State game biologists have documented the crane is breeding here, offering proof they are expanding into parts of western Pennsylvania. Our observations add to that body of evidence that the species is making this IBA a migration destination.
Some of the species we checked off our list during the our Black Swamp & Volant Strips excursion:
- American Coot
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Sandhill Crane
- Mallard Duck
- Rink-necked Duck
- Morning Dove
- Northern Mockingbird
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- American Robin
- Song Sparrow
- Northern Cardinal