It's not a secret that I'm a bird watcher.

    It's not a secret that I'm a bird watcher.

    It's my job at Agassiz Audubon Society to encourage everyone to get out and see the birds, to enjoy birds and to promote bird conservation.  Need a speaker?  Got a question?  See an unusual bird?  Call me.

    It's no surprise that I get phone calls from friends, colleagues and "unknown callers." Many of them start with "I found this bird, what can I do to help it?"  Some ask "Can you help me identify this bird?"  And others call to tell me they spotted an owl an ibis or another relatively uncommon bird - and offer to show it to me.  

    Bobbie Shields was one of those "unknown callers" last week.  She wanted to know where to go to see Sandhill Cranes "staging" in local farm fields.   Her call made me take a second look at these charismatic birds that I've come to take for granted.  

    At first look, the tall, gray birds with crimson crowns resemble a Great Blue Heron, but they're double the weight (7-14 pounds) and much taller (3-5 feet).  

    It's their call that gets my attention.  It's unforgettable.   In the spring and fall, I can hear their loud, almost deafening bugles as they fly overhead.   When they're "staging" (fattening-up for migration), I can hear their calls from miles away.    

    Of the 15 species of cranes in the world, only two - the Sandhill and the Whooping Crane, can be spotted in North America.  The Sandhill, the most abundant crane in the world, is a bird of the Midwestern grasslands, but you can also see non-migratory populations in Florida, Mississippi and Cuba.    

    Whooping Cranes are on the on the other end of the abundance scale.  They're so rare, you'd have to go to Aransas, Texas (where they winter) or to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin (where a new population has been established) to get a "guaranteed" look.

    I grew up in a state where Sandhill Crane sightings are almost unheard of.  In fact, the first report of Sandhill Cranes in New Jersey occurred in 1992.  Since then, only a handful of them have been spotted in the "Garden State" during fall migration.

    I had to travel to Nebraska in March to get the "wow" experience - the spring migration spectacle.  Imagine more than half a million cranes stopping along a relatively small stretch of the Platte River to rest and fatten-up on their way north to nesting grounds in Minnesota and Canada.  

    Years later, when I moved to northwest Minnesota, I never thought I'd find a Sandhill Crane nest across the street.  I consider myself fortunate to have had an opportunity to watch and photograph a pair cranes raise their "colt," to hear their raspy bugling as they fly over my house and to see them jump, dance and call - in unison, in the early morning fog.  

    Cranes are my noisy neighbors.  I mark the change in seasons by their arrival and departure.  

    Departure time is coming.  I've seen and heard more and more Sandhills arrive.