Sandhill Crane and Indiana Dunes – 2019 Synopsis

The Vicki Penziner-Matson Sandhill Crane and Indiana Dunes Field Trip took place on Saturday and Sunday on November 16-17. The temperature outside during that weekend oscillated between 24F-39F and for the most part, it remained in the thirties. Our expedition gathered at 7:05 a.m. in the Center for Science and Technology (CST) lobby. There we circled up, introduced each other and learned a little more about the geography of where we were going. We recalled Vicki’s passions for nature and her love of capturing nature through a lens.  We also remembered the generosity of friends and family who established the fund that makes this perennial opportunity possible for the Earlham community.  After we got acquainted with each other and learned about where we were going, the group jumped in the vans and headed north. We were all layered up for the trip, had our scopes, and some of us had a pillow handy for a quick snooze on our way there.

Participants included faculty, alumni, students (from various years and majors), and Earlham family and friends for a total of 34 people.  Most of us drove in our 12-passenger Earlham vans, but some drove their personal cars.

After a 2-hour drive we stopped for a quick restroom break and then we stopped again near the Meadow Lake Wind Farm where we talked about land changes, the Kankakee reclamation, farming, wind energy, and the impacts of these endeavors on that place and nature. We then drove further north to Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Game Area Indiana and arrived around 11:25 a.m. Upon arrival, Wendy gave introductions on how to use binoculars. Together, Wendy and John shared information about the Sandhill Crane migration, their natural history, and courtship rituals. They also shared an overview of the geology of the region, and how historical alterations of the environment had affected the area significantly. For example, we talked about the formation of this area (all the way from glaciation to reclamation of the Kankakee swamp area). At this point, it is important to mention that just the week before our trip the park had recorded 5000+ cranes on site, and a few days before our trip we learned that the number had spiked to 11,000+. We knew then that our chances of seeing an amazing “construction of cranes” that evening was going to be high if the weather cooperated, which it did.

We spent some time in the observation deck parking area fine-tuning our binocular skills. Once that was accomplished we jumped in the vans to drive around the surrounding fields. We drove slowly around the rural roads outside the refuge to observe flocks of cranes feeding in agricultural fields. We had some amazing views of the Sandhill Cranes. In contrast to previous years we were able to see a few big groups of Sandhill cranes of around 200+, 1000+ and 2000+ individuals very close. We were able to witness some individuals parachuting down, others were practicing some mating displays, while others were just foraging.

After roaming the roads we drove to our parking/ lunch spot where we had lunch @ around 1:30 p.m. Some folks ventured through the woods to find the restrooms and others helped set up the food line. After lunch, we drove for a few more miles trying to find a trail to walk around to the marshes and lakes on the refuge. Unfortunately, all trails were closed that weekend. Hunting season had started. We kept driving around the fields looking for more Sandhill Cranes. It was a relaxed drive and at around 4 p.m. we ended in the public viewing platform to watch the cranes aggregate on a large pasture and the nearby cornfields.  There were very few cranes in the main field when we arrived; however, very soon the cranes starting arriving from feeding areas from all directions. It was amazing. Many flew right over our heads in V-shaped formations to reduce energy costs while flying, others in pairs, while others in clumps. The cranes gathered a bit further from the platform than in most years, but people were still able to grasp the magnitude of the group while also being able to observe individual cranes with the spotting scopes. Several folks on the trip had never seen this aggregation, they had never seen a crane before, nor witnessed the contrast of so many birds flying by with the sunset contrast in the horizon. Some of us observed the interaction between a herd of deer and the cranes. All in all a total of more than 15,000 cranes were reported to be there, as of Nov 19 there were 19,980.

After experiencing this amazing display, the group drove to our night accommodations. We had a great meal that night (thank you, night cooks and chefs), some games were played and later we had an amazing exploration of our neighboring stars and other celestial bodies (thank you, Seth).

After breakfast the following day, we headed north to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. We had a great introduction to the park by one of the park rangers and then we headed off to the trails for a group hike. We were ready. During this amazing hike through sand trails and carefully designed stairs, we conquered the top three “mountains” in the National Park. While doing this we experienced some amazing nature-scapes and learned more about natural history and succession in the area. We learned about bird adaptations to cold environments, about woodpeckers, pioneer species, and climax communities as well as invasive species affecting this environment. We then headed to the lakeshore and enjoyed some group rock-skipping on a glass-smooth Lake Michigan. Toward the end of this leg of the trip, the group had a quick snack and then headed back to Richmond for a late Sunday night arrival.

“We’d like to give a big thanks to Michael Penziner, Laurence Matson and other family contributors for making this trip possible! **

We also wish to extend thanks to the wonderful group of people who went on the trip this year. Everyone’s enthusiasm and good attitudes made this experience delightful. We hope that everybody had as much fun as we did.

We would like to recognize and thank John and Wendy for their enthusiasm and expertise in Natural History of birds, plants, ecology, conservation, and geology. Seth’s stories about stars and our galaxy were welcomed, Patrick’s contributions to our wind farm stop over were key. Most importantly a big THANK YOU to our fearless Caroline and Lilly, both current Earlham seniors, who were key in making this trip happen. Their hard work and diligence was critical.”

Jose Ignacio Pareja, Wendy Tori, John Iverson, Caroline Wolfe-Merritt, and Lilly Hartman


**Expenses for the trip (e.g., rental vans and food) were covered by the Vicki Penziner-Matson Fund.

Participant testimonials

List of Fauna and flora

Canada GooseRed-bellied WoodpeckerCommon Grackle
MallardPileated WoodpeckerHouse Sparrow
Northern GoshawkBlue JayDowny Woodpecker
Red-tailed HawkAmerican CrowRing-billed gull
American KestrelEastern BluebirdWhite-breasted Nuthatch
Sandhill Crane (15,000+)American RobinRed-breasted Nuthatch
Rock PigeonEuropean StarlingBlack-capped Chickadee
Black-capped ChickadeeAmerican Tree Sparrow

Distinctive trees and shrubs of the area

Black OakWhite PineIndian Grass
Pin OakRiver BirchSugar Maple
White OakWinterberry Holly and ButtonbrushNorway Maple
Quaking AspenSumacCottonwood
SassafrasBeachgrassinvasive exotic Oriental Bittersweet
CottonwoodJack Pine
We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.
We continue to monitor the effects of an industrial fire 1.1 miles from campus.