Kentucky Sandhill Cranes – Winter Wildlife Watching at Its Finest

Kentucky Sandhill CranesJust this week our fearless leader, publisher, and editor CarrieZ did a great post about winter eagle watching opportunities in Kentucky. But eagles aren’t the only outstanding bird watching opportunity during the winter months in Kentucky.

While Carrie was writing about the eagles, I was attending a sneak peek tour that was designed to give me the same experience that attendees of the upcoming Sandhill Crane Nature Watch Weekend at Barren River State Resort Park will enjoy.




Kentucky Sandhill CranesBarren River Lake State Resort Park is offering its Nature Watch Weekends to view sandhill cranes as they migrate home to the north in January. Each year thousands of sandhill cranes make Barren River Lake a stop as they congregate in huge numbers to migrate. The lake’s exposed mud flats in winter provide the birds with a perfect spot to rest and socialize as they settle in for the night. Ample farmlands and wet meadows offer plenty of food.

Kentucky Sandhill CranesI arrived just after lunch the day before the tour was scheduled in hopes that I would be able to catch the afternoon flight of the sandhills as they return from feeding in the fields to their roost site on the mud flats of Barren River Lake. It was a lovely sunny December day, lovely enough to have the window down as I pulled into the park entrance. I paused at the entrance for a moment to check my notes, and have them handy for checking in at the lodge when I heard them. The calls of the sandhill cranes were overhead and I was treated to the beautiful site of these large elegant birds soaring overhead in V formation headed out for the afternoon feed. It was almost as if the staff of Barren River State Resort Park had said “Cue the crane welcoming committee, the camera lady is here!”

It didn’t take me long to seek out park naturalist Jaimie Avery to request her assistance with locating the feeding cranes. Avery’s love of the cranes, and her love of sharing the natural wonders at Barren River State Resort Park were immediately evident, as was her knowledge of the raucous sounding big gray birds. She generously provided me with maps, counts, directions, and virtually anything I needed to help me find the afternoon feeders.

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes
No question about it – Avery knows where the cranes like to feed and roost. The first spot she suggested I check was filled with dancing, calling and feeding cranes. I spent the afternoon cruising the back roads that Avery suggested and was not disappointed. In fact, at one of my stops, I noticed a suspiciously official government looking vehicle pulling to a stop behind me. Lo and behold, it was Jaime and Lisa Deavers, also from Kentucky Parks, out scouting to insure the best crane viewing opportunities for the tour participants the next morning. We spent the rest of the afternoon caravanning around the barren River Lake area scouting for the sandhills. I followed them to the roost site, where not only was I able to watch the cranes come slipping into the mudflats just at dark, I was able to also see a whooping crane mixed in with sandhills.

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes

The day ended just after dark with a delicious dinner from the buffet at the Driftwood Restaurant located in the lodge and I enjoyed my last cup of coffee before bedtime from the balcony of my room at the lodge while I listened to the cranes still chatter from the mud flats in the light of a full moon.

Our morning tour began bright and early at 6:15am, and we were welcomed with coffee, tea, and hot chocolate as we boarded the van for the first leg of the trip to the roost site. Our guides Jaime and Lisa filled the short drive will all types of facts and education about sandhill cranes and their migration through Kentucky.

Again, as if the park staff had said “Cue the birds” – our arrival at the roost site was heralded by two gorgeous adult bald eagles lifting up and taking flight just mere feet over our heads as we exited the van.

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes

Although it was a drizzly foggy morning, the tour is a “rain or shine” tour, and the weather only made the sight and the sounds of the cranes more ethereal, more spiritual as hundreds of the cranes took the air in bluish gray mist.   We followed a mowed path through the tall grass, which enabled us to get even closer to the cranes, increasing our photo opportunities and viewing pleasure.

When most of the cranes had left the roost site, we paused to enjoy a breakfast of fruit, breakfast sandwiches and granola bars along with refills of our coffee and hot chocolate cups. Once again we boarded the van and set out for the fields that the Kentucky parks staff had scouted the evening before to enjoy watching the incoming cranes land and performing their dancing, hopping and almost comical feeding rituals across the pastures and cur corn fields. All too soon it was time to return to the Barren River Lake State resort Park lodge and bid our farewells to our tour mates.

Kentucky Sandhill CranesWhether you take advantage of the guided tour or elect to explore the area on your own, a trip to Barren River State Resort park this winter to experience the thousands of wintering and migrating sandhill cranes is an experience you won’t soon forget. The park offers a variety of lodging options from lodge rooms to cabins and is truly “ground zero” for the wintering and migrating cranes. The experience of enjoying a late evening cup of coffee on the balcony or porch of your room or cabin while listening to the sounds of the cranes echo across the mud flats is an awe inspiring experience to say the least.

So treat yourself to a trip to Barren River, enjoy the not only the sandhill cranes, but the waterfowl, deer, turkey, otters and other wildlife that call the park home this winter. It’s a perfect getaway that will leave you with plenty of warm winter wildlife memories.

Barren River is offering tours during two weekends for guests to learn more about these intriguing birds with a unique sound. Tours will be held Jan. 23-24 and 30-31, 2015.

Each weekend also includes an educational session conducted by a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources on Friday evening at 7 p.m. Registration is $40 per adult and $20 per child 8-12 years old (must be at least 8 years old to go on van tours). The fee includes all educational sessions, a box lunch, a T-shirt and a choice of a Friday sunset, Saturday sunrise or Saturday sunset tour.

For more information, contact Jamie Avery at jamie.avery@ky.gov or 1-800-325-0057. When making reservations ask for the sandhill crane lodge room rate of $49.95 plus tax.

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes

Kentucky Sandhill Cranes