2019 Sandhill Crane Trip, Vicki-Penziner Matson Field Trips | Earlham College
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2019 Sandhill Crane Trip


Trip Synopsis:

This Fall’s 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 7:05am 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.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 2h 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 11:25am. 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.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 1:30pm. 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 4pm 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.

We had a great meal that night — thank you, night cooks and chefs.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 lake shore, 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.

2019 Sandhill Crane Trip ParticipantsWe 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.

Keep an eye out for other coming Penziner-Matson field trips!!!

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. Vicki’s love of the natural world inspired her parents and friends to establish this fund, after her unexpected death near the end of her senior year at Earlham nearly 40 years ago.  The income from the fund is dedicated to offering natural history field trips. These trips are community-wide events, open to staff, faculty and students (alumni, emeriti, etc.) alike.

Selected comments from some of our participants:

It was a great experience to learn about some of the preserved areas and unique species in Indiana, an area that people, unfortunately, do not associate with wildlife. Not only was it interesting to see the sandhill cranes and the dunes, but it was fun to see all the different groups of people that the trip attracted. It reminds me of the great uniting power that exploring our environment has.

— Katie Jacobs

I enjoyed hiking the Indiana sand dunes, learning about the sandhill cranes, especially their dance, seeing the [Pileated] woodpecker on the hike and spending time away from campus with my friends.

— Alyssa, first year

We saw some absolutely beautiful scenes on this trip. I loved observing the cranes and taking a great hike in the dunes!

— Josh Angell, second year

I loved getting to walk through all the trees at the Indiana sand dunes, standing on the giant mounds of sand was amazing! I also loved getting to learn about the different behaviors of sand hill cranes including their match pairs for life!

— Courtney, first year

 The deep sense of community that I felt on this trip was incredible. Seeing so many beautiful birds and having the opportunity to teach and be taught was an experience that I am so thankful for.

— Caleigh, second year

It was a great time getting to know everyone on the trip and enjoying the community, but what was especially impactful was the time we spent outdoors. Looking through binoculars/scopes at deer running through a field was a particularly memorable moment. That being said watching the cranes come in at sunset was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever experienced, and will not soon be topped. The peaceful trip to Indiana dunes and seeing serene Lake Michigan only topped it off and solidified this trip's real impact on my appreciation of nature.

— Isaac RB, first year

It has been an amazing experience to get outside and to really experience ecology. Thank you for this opportunity; it is something I will never forget.

— Abby Shuck

It was amazing to learn about the eating habits of sandhill cranes in order to understand why they live in Indiana during certain times of the year. I also loved having the opportunity to hike through the dunes!

— Hannah, first-year

I just started bird watching last year, and it was such a gift and a joy to see such beautiful birds! There were so many sandhill cranes! And I have lived in Indiana for 15 years and I have never visited the sand dunes. Thank you for making this trip possible!

— Joann Quiñones, English department

I appreciated the joy of the opportunity to witness magnificent events of the natural world while traveling with a group of inspiring experts. The birds and plants were beautiful :-)

— Seth, astronomy and physics department

 I'd never seen a sandhill crane before, and I saw thousands on this trip. How beautiful! I was excited to visit the Indiana Dunes and stamp my National Parks Passport book! The knowledge from Wendy, John and others sunk in when we were able to talk about what was immediately in front of us.

— Emmett, biology department

Thank you for supporting this trip! I had a great time learning about all different types of the birds, plants and nature and as a math person, I would probably not get these opportunities otherwise.

— Fariba, math department

I'm a wife of Earlham professor and I truly enjoyed the Sandhill Crane trip. I haven't been on a nature trip since I was a child and it brought back wonderful memories. Seeing the Cranes land in the field amongst the many grazing deer was spectacular. I'm thankful for the opportunity.

— Sarah

Nature, Birds, Breeze, and Bondings. This trip was a true delight.

— Dipesh Poudel, Class of 2022

During this trip I really enjoyed being able to learn about and see the migration of the sandhill cranes because I didn’t know much beforehand. I also really enjoyed spending time with my friends and getting to know new people.

— Torrie, first year

I think the reason why the Sandhill Crane Trip was so magical was that we had people on our trip from many different departments and concentrations, which meant at every turn we encountered a new learning experience from a new perspective. A particularly beautiful moment to me was, awhile after getting back from seeing the migration, those of us still awake went to watch the stars. It was freezing, but we were so wrapped up in the constellations, we barely noticed.

— Nora, class of 2023

This experience has been amazing. Being able to experience nature as a group has reinforced my belief that this Earth is something we need to protect. I've been able to meet so many amazing people that love learning and science.

— Lily Mura '23 (First year)

 I really appreciate everyone who made and work through for this trip, because this trip was simply amazing. This was my first time joining Earlham outdoor trip, and I regretted that I haven’t gone so far! I love watching cranes because of beautiful memories that I made with my family when I was little, and this trip reminded me of the memories. I also learnt so many things, met so many great people, and finally succeeded skipping stones for the first time in my life! I did not know that I needed this trip in my life this bad. It was truly, the best experience I had in my Earlham life!

— Jimin Yoo

As an interdisciplinary major leaning towards social sciences, I was really curious and excited to experience new things and learn new knowledge from a natural history field trip. I've learned so much more about botany, ecology, and zoology, branches of biology which were previously unknown to me. It was so much fun meeting new people with different interests. The trip was indeed a valuable learning opportunity!

— Duong Nguyen, fourth year

Thank you for your continued support of these wonderful natural history trips for the Earlham community, in remembrance of Vicki.  Although I have been retired for 8 years, I am still excited to help lead these programs and share natural wonders like the sandhill cranes with students and other faculty.  This program is such a gift to Earlham.

— John Iverson

List of Fauna and Flora


Canada Goose
Northern Goshawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Sandhill Crane (15000+)
Rock Pigeon
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Common Grackle
House Sparrow
Downy Woodpecker
Ring-billed gull
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee

Distinctive trees and shrubs of the area:

Black Oak, Pin Oak, White Oak, Quaking Aspen, Sassafras, Cottonwood, Jack Pine, White Pine, River Birch, Winterberry Holly and Buttonbush, Sumac, Beachgrass, Indian Grass, Sugar Maple, Norway Maple, Cottonwood and way too much invasive exotic Oriental Bittersweet

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