Thousands of sandhill cranes, a romp of otters and one enormous dune

November 14, 2010

This weekend my seven year old son Robbie and I joined nearly two dozen Earlhamites for a two day trip to northern Indiana.

Our ultimate goal was to see the migration of Sandhill Cranes, and did we ever.  But we also visited the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan.

The trip was made possible by a fund named for Vickie Penziner-Matson, a wonderful Earlham student with interests in the natural world and in photography who died before graduating a few decades ago.  Her family and friends made gifts that now allow Earlham students and faculty to go on field trips to see extraordinary and beautiful things.

Leading this trip were Emeritus Professor of Biology Bill Buskirk, and Biology Professors Wendy Tori (Bill’s successor as resident ornithologist) and Brent Smith (tree guy extraordinaire).  Wendy’s husband Jose, who teaches at Miami of Ohio, also lent his expertise.  Most of the rest of the party were Earlham students with a smattering of faculty members and family thrown in.

We piled into vans at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning and drove to Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Game Area.  By late morning we were set up along the edge of a field with binoculars, spotting scopes and long lens cameras watching several dozen Sandhill Cranes.  Jasper-Pulaski is their most important gathering point in Indiana on a flyway from Canada south.

In the afternoon, in light rain, we walked through Jasper-Pulaski, looking at trees and birds.  Along the way we marvelled at a group of about five otters (a romp of otters, we learned) frolicking in a creek that also showed evidence of beavers.  We ended in a marsh that featured more Sandhill Cranes, heron, ducks, and a majestic bald eagle seen at a distance.

Late afternoon found us at a field with several hundred other human enthusiasts watching a flock mof perhaps 10,000 Sandhill Cranes assemble.  I watched perhaps 50 to 100 arrive each minute over the hour or so we were there.  They fly in floating on the wind, relaxed, their long legs and necks extended, barely beating their wings, then settling in among the throng.  As they flew and after they landed they trumpet their strange, haunting, unforgettable calls.  Now that we knew the sound, Bill assured us, we would hear them flying very high overhead as they came over Richmond on migrations, never coming low enough to be seen.

From time to time, dances would break out among them in various parts of assemblage.  Along the edges of the field, deer grazed quietly.  Bill told us the cranes would fly away to spend the night in a marsh, the water serving as protection against predators.

That evening we stayed in cabins in Tippecanoe State Forest.  After a dinner of spaghetti, salad, cookies and hot chocolate, we played charades until bedtime.  A few hearty souls went on a birdwalk Sunday morning.  Birds were scarce to be seen, but there were, as always, unusual trees to be identified and stories to be told.  Others enjoyed warm sleeping bags on a cold morning.

After breakfast, we drove north to the Indiana Dunes, where we walked along the jetty in Michigan City, then climbed Mt. Baldy, a high dune in the park.  Many (including Robbie but not me) ran or rolled done the dune, then struggled back to the top.  After a late picnic lunch, we drove back to Richmond, arriving just after dinner.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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