COLUMBIA — A male sandhill crane performed his mating dance for the female standing in front of him. The pair nodded their heads and bowed. Then the male twisted his neck and laid his head, marked by a characteristic red patch, on an outspread wing. The female reciprocated by taking a few steps forward.
Susan Hazelwood, a member of the board of directors at the Audubon Society of Missouri, and Vic Bogosian, wildlife biologist at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, watched as the birds mated on March 29 at Eagle Bluffs. Hazelwood said the pair of cranes had been at the conservation area for about a week. The staff didn't know whether they were male and female until this display of mating behavior.
Sandhill cranes are a rare sight in Missouri, but these two cranes might be nesting at the conservation area this year.
After spending the winter in warmer regions such as Texas and California, sandhill cranes migrate to northern breeding grounds. Large numbers stop to rest and eat on the Platte River in Nebraska before continuing their migration.
"We're sort of the mid-shift in terms of breeding range," Bogosian said. "It's certainly not something that we see every year in Missouri. It may be that they're expanding their range, or it may just be that we've gotten lucky for a couple of years."
He said that two colts (young sandhill cranes) were hatched at Eagle Bluffs in 2011, and other areas in the state have also seen successful nesting in recent years.
The cranes generally travel in groups of about 40, Hazelwood said.
"Having these pairs that offshoot is a natural but small percentage," she said.
Anne Hutton, volunteer naturalist at Runge Conservation Nature Center in Jefferson City, said that Missouri residents might mistake the sandhills for great blue herons because of their rarity in this area.
"The crane is also a tall, long-legged, long-necked bird, but the crane has a big tuft on the tail," Hutton said. "They have red on their head and a black bill. ... And they fly very differently."
Hazelwood saw the two cranes again at 6 p.m. April 7 at Eagle Bluffs.
"Assuming she's been impregnated off his mating event that we saw, it's really not in her best interest to start flying anywhere else," he said. "A ton of energy goes into developing those eggs."
Other types of wildlife have also reappeared on the conservation area with the warming weather.
Jon and Jennifer Adams were exploring the conservation area with their dogs, Lily and Rue, and looking for wildlife on April 6. Jon Adams, "a total outdoorsman," his wife said, visits the area about seven times a year and wanted his wife to see the birds.
"I just saw something I've never seen before," she said. A large, grey heron stood on the water's edge nearby.
Hazelwood said she also saw American woodcocks and heard spring peepers (small frogs) calling during a visit, heralding the new season.
"Spring for wildlife comes earlier than it does for humans on the calendar," she said. "You've still got your winter coat and gloves on, but you know some birds are thinking about courtship, and spring's coming."