Earlier this month, amateur wildlife photographer Nick Landry felt as if he was snapping photos in the Serengeti.
In reality, he’d spent several hours quietly working his way through the yellowed grasses of the Tantramar Marsh, near the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border.
His efforts paid off and he was rewarded with several shots of a recent resident of the area: sandhill cranes.
“They’re almost like nothing you’ve seen before,” said Landry. “It almost felt like you were in Africa because they look … almost like an ostrich.”
At nearly 1.3 metres tall, sandhill cranes are contenders for the biggest bird in the province.
Their slate-grey colouring looks blazing white against the dead marsh grasses of April.
Landry, 20, says with their blood-red foreheads, they’re surreal to encounter.
“Very different,” said Landry. “Very different from anything I’ve seen.”
Home on the Prairies
The cranes are a rare sight in New Brunswick, not because they’re rare, but because they’re not supposed to be here.
Sandhill cranes are most commonly found around the Prairies and mid-western United States, although there are breeding populations in Ontario, according to Gary Donaldson, the Atlantic manager of protected areas and stewardship for the Canadian Wildlife Service.
“If you look at the concentration of the species, they’re really kind of a mid-continent bird,” said Donaldson. “The Prairies are the place that you’re most likely to see them.”
Donaldson says sandhill cranes have only been reported in the marsh in recent years, but he believes they are breeding here.
“It’s something new, but regular, I would say now,” said Donaldson.
He’s not sure when the cranes started to frequent the marshes and fields near Jolicure, N.B.. He says it may be that they’ve been coming to the area sometime in the last 20 years, but no one noticed them until a few years ago, when their presence was first recorded.
By choice or by storm?
He has a few theories about how they came to the Tantramar Marsh area.
“There’s all sort of reasons birds show up in crazy places and if you’re an animal with wings it’s pretty common for you to go places because it’s so easy to go places,” said Donaldson. “But certainly, getting blown around by storms is one reason birds disperse into different places.”
Donaldson notes they may also just be here as a natural expansion of their territory. He says the eastern-most populations of sandhill cranes are doing quite well, so their presence in New Brunswick may just be an example of a “founder” population splintering off from their traditional habitat.
He says he fully understands why birders like Landry are drawn to them. He still finds them breathtaking.
“They’re pretty striking when you see a crane for the first time, because they are noticeably bigger,” said Donaldson. “The first thing is, ‘Wow, what is that huge bird?'”