Four sandhill cranes were spotted at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in December 2022. Photos by Wayne Bierbaum.

Unexpected Visitors

Rare sighting in Jug Bay marshes

A waterbird survey team at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary made a discovery this winter that has the birding community very excited.

Near the end of December 2022, a survey team at Jug Bay in Lothian, Maryland, spotted four uncommonly large birds through high-power spotting scopes at the park’s marsh overlook. There were four sandhill cranes calmly finding food among the brown marsh plants. The visit was brief and the group flew off around 8 a.m.

But then they came back.

January 12, 2023, I was there when the survey team once again spotted four sandhill cranes along the shoreline of the western branch of the Patuxent River. Again, at around 8 a.m. the birds flew off to the northeast. Yet this time, at 10 a.m. the flock returned to the marsh. 

Because of their rarity, Greg Kearns, a naturalist and bird expert with the Maryland National Capital Park & Planning Commission at Patuxent River Park, was alerted. Kearns was able to verify the identity of the birds from an overlook at Mount Calvert Historical Park in Upper Marlboro. Kearns said that the last known sighting of sandhill cranes around Jug Bay was about 35 years ago. 

Standing 4 feet tall and with 6.5-foot wingspans, sandhill cranes are very large birds. The adults are gray and the younger birds are light tan but all have a scarlet cap on their heads. They fly on long broad wings and can soar effortlessly over long distances. Their bill is dark yellow-brown and dagger-like. 

Sandhill cranes performing a mating dance in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2010. Photo by Wayne Bierbaum.

Sandhill cranes are noteworthy for their springtime bonding dances between pairs, who mate for life. They will nest in marshy areas and usually raise two colts which will stay with their parents for about 20 months. 

The cranes are omnivores and use their pointy bills to forage through their favorite habitats: marshes and fields. They eat grains, fruit, tubers, insects, worms, reptiles, amphibians, fish and small mammals. The canes likely find Jug Bay’s wetlands to be an abundant food source. Tons of wild rice blanket the marsh in the winter and tubers and small animals are hidden everywhere. 

In North America, there are several subspecies of sandhill cranes. An isolated population that currently subsists on the pine grasslands in Mississippi is critically endangered. After hitting a nadir of 125 in 2016, they have slightly recovered through controlled reintroduction. 

On the whole, the population has increased by 3% since 1970. The major subspecies flock has an estimated 500,000 individuals which follow a central flyway through the Platte River flood plains in Nebraska into Alaska and northern Canada. According to Smithsonian Magazine, 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population funnels through an 80-mile stretch of the Platte. A smaller flock of about 30,000 birds winters in Florida and follows the Mississippi flyway through Michigan. There is a non-migrating subspecies that is a year-round resident of southern Florida. 

The reason their appearance in Maryland is unusual is that there are no major crane flyways that follow the Eastern Seaboard. In the summer, for several years now, small groups of sandhills have been spotted in farmlands in Maryland and, this summer, one bird hung around Galesville for a week. This year, a successful nesting pair was found in Garrett County—a first-ever for Maryland. Why they are showing up in Maryland is being debated but coincides with a severe multi-year Midwestern drought. The Platte River completely dried out this summer.

Seeing these large beautiful birds in the region is exciting. Naturalists and birders look forward to seeing what will happen if the region gets heavy snow. Will the cranes stick around into spring and will we get to witness their spectacular spring dancing? Birders will be watching and waiting. 

Dr. Wayne Bierbaum is a retired doctor, avid birder and photographer living in Anne Arundel County, Md. He previously penned a weekly column in CBM Bay Weekly called Creature Feature.