Sandhill Cranes and the Magic of Early Morning

Sunrise over the Beaverhead River valley.


There is magic in basking in the first rays of sunshine on an early fall morning.

A couple weeks ago, my friend and frequent hunting buddy, John Jacobson, said he’d drawn a sandhill crane permit, and wondered if I’d like to go along on his opening day hunt.

I thought that sounded like a fun trip, even if it entailed being on the road at 5:30 in the morning, in order to be at the ranch he’d lined up before dawn. Being there before daylight was necessary, as sandhill cranes leave their river bottom meadows at first light to fly out to nearby grain fields.

We got to the ranch a bit after 6:30 and we climbed up to the top of a bluff, the edge of a bench overlooking the broad, flat valley of the Beaverhead River. Several cranes had already flown up and over the hillside, so we had an idea of where the cranes were flying.

We found places to sit in the sagebrush and settled down to wait for whatever might come our way.

What we found was pure magic, as the sun rose over distant mountains and the valley came to life.

There was constant chatter from waterfowl, such as mallards and Canada geese, as they made feeding flights to nearby fields. There were occasional squawks of pheasants, as well. Another constant was the haunting sound of sandhill cranes, as they called to each other across the meadows.

As the valley slowly became bathed in the early morning sunshine, I occasionally spotted white-tailed deer feeding, More often than not, when I studied through binoculars for a better look, if I saw one deer I was likely to see groups of deer, as many as eight in a group, as they went about their morning routines, presumably unaware that there were distant spies eavesdropping on them. Even at a long distance, through binoculars I could tell that at least a couple deer had grown good sets of antlers.

We weren’t the only predators on that hillside. A small raptor, a northern harrier, was busy flying along the hillside below us, probably in search of rodents of one kind or another.

It was while the harrier was cruising along the hillside that I looked over and saw three sandhill cranes flying right over John. “There’s three cranes right overhead!” I yelled, but it was too late for him to turn and fire his shotgun.

By then, it was getting to be about 9 a.m. and we were feeling the warmth of morning sunshine. After sitting on the ground for a couple hours we both felt the need to get up and move around a bit.

John sheepishly explained why he hadn’t gotten any shots off at the sandhill cranes. “I was watching that harrier working the hillside and never noticed the cranes coming my way. I thought they would make some sounds, but they were silent.”

John Jacobson trudging down the hillside after a leisurely hunt.

And so ended the morning hunt. We could hear cranes talking while feeding in that distant grain field, but the flights seem to end for the morning. The sandhill crane season runs through October 8, though it’s hard telling whether we’ll have another chance to get out again.

We’ll probably survive without a dinner of sandhill crane, though I had checked the internet for cooking suggestions. “Ribeye in the sky,” was one description of the meat, suggesting cubing the breast meat and wrapping the chunks in bacon and grilling them. On the other hand, one person commented, “If you get a bird that’s been eating fish you might as well feed it to the dog right away.”

That brought back a memory of a funny story in Gun Dog magazine, some years back, telling of dogs not wanting to retrieve these strange, long-necked birds. One hunter, however, ordered his Labrador retriever to retrieve his crane, and didn’t want any argument. The Lab dutifully retrieved the bird, but then raised his leg and peed on it.

He did his duty but he still had the last word.


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