Sandhill crane

Grus canadensis

For the past month, their numbers have been building, an increasing flood of birds headed southward. Their trilling calls and often slow, circling flight paths make the sandhill cranes unmistakable to identify in flight.

While coming from the far north of Canada and Alaska thousands of sandhill cranes will stop in central Kansas to rest and feed. Often 50,000 or more will congregate on the shallow, open waters at the Quivira National Waterfowl Refuge or Cheyenne Bottoms. In mass, they’ll often rise and head to feed in neighboring fields of harvested grain or wheat.

Watching and photographing Kansas’ sandhill cranes is a great attraction for birders. Most who hunt them rank sandhills as the most challenging bird in Kansas to get within shotgun range.

Their eyes are so sharp that normal plastic decoys often don’t fool sandhill cranes. Many avid sandhill hunters now use mounted sandhill cranes that may cost more than $100 per decoy. Some rate the bird’s meat so flavorful that they’re called “ribeye of the sky.”