Gray ghosts of the sky: Tracking sandhill cranes

They're coming in now, four of them, brownish-gray forms with long necks, huge wings and extended legs.

Their raucous calls, growing ever louder as they fly closer, sound like something out of "Jurassic Park."

Close your eyes for a second, and it's easy to imagine pterodactyls are approaching.

Concealed in layout blinds stuffed with stubble to blend in with our surroundings, we watch. And wait. The birds are wary. They flap their wings and glide, flap their wings and glide, heads ever turning as they scan their surroundings for any sign of danger.

The homemade decoys, painted plywood silhouettes adorned with wings from previous hunts, are doing their jobs, though. They're set behind us on a small rise in the stubble.

The croaking birds are almost in range.

"Get ready," Bob Jensen whispers from his well-concealed layout blind a few yards to the left.

The blinds spring open, and shots ring out as the birds flare and realize too late that something isn't right.

Moments later, the first sandhill crane of the morning is in the bag.

It's the opening day of North Dakota's resident waterfowl season, but Jensen and his two hunting partners aren't after ducks on this bluebird September morning. A research specialist at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, Jensen is on a quest for sandhill cranes.

He hunts ducks and geese, too, along with pheasants, deer and just about anything else North Dakota hunters pursue in the fall.

But cranes are his favorite. Jensen hunts them every chance he gets once season opens in mid-September.

"Every weekend I'm not going somewhere else - like pheasant or antelope hunting," he says. "It's fun whenever you go."

Jensen, 45, says he caught the sandhill crane bug about 15 years ago when he started pursuing the birds with another hunting buddy. Growing up in Bemidji, he'd never hunted sandhill cranes because Minnesota doesn't offer a season on the birds.

Once he moved to North Dakota in the late 1980s, though, sandhill cranes were a natural progression for the avid hunter. Still, Jensen says, the first few years largely were trial-and-error.

"We didn't kill a lot of birds right away," he said.

Knowing when to pull the trigger is part of the challenge. Sandhill cranes tend to look bigger than they really are, Jensen says, and that tempts many hunters to start shooting too early.

Hunting over decoys, most shots are in the 30- to 40-yard range. Jensen uses a double-barrel 12 gauge with 3-inch BBB steel shot.

"In general, as long as the bird is coming toward you and not past, let them go," Jensen said. "When it's time, point at their head and shoot. When they're flying away from you, they're very hard to kill."

It's a lot of work, though, this sandhill crane hunting, and getting the wary birds into shooting range doesn't happen without a considerable amount of effort.

Jensen takes his crane hunting seriously.

It all started the previous afternoon, when he and his two hunting partners embarked on a scouting mission to scour the countryside for groups of feeding sandhill cranes. The birds roost in large, shallow wetlands, flying out to feed in stubble fields each morning and evening.

The key, Jensen says, is to find a field where cranes are feeding in the evening. As long as they're not disturbed, chances are they'll return to feed the next morning.

But in this hilly part of rural North Dakota, stubble fields can cover hundreds of acres or more, and sandhill cranes are notorious for landing right in the middle where they easily can spot approaching danger.

Sandhill cranes might be big, but it takes a keen eye - and a good set of binoculars - to spot them when they're a quarter-mile away or more.

"Little gray ghosts, that's what we're looking for," Jensen said. "Little gray ghosts."

Jensen says he doesn't want to think about how many miles he puts on each fall scouting the countryside for fields to hunt. Locating birds is only part of the challenge; posted land is becoming increasingly prevalent, Jensen says, and finding the landowner and securing permission to hunt is even more crucial.

"There's the dilemma you run into," Jensen said, pointing out a "No Trespassing" sign.

Fortunately, all of the ingredients fell into place to make this morning happen. The field Jensen located while scouting had perhaps 200 sandhill cranes, and he was able to track down the landowner.

But the challenge didn't end there.

Dawn was but a distant promise on the eastern horizon when Jensen pulled into the stubble field and started setting up decoys. Sandhills prefer high ground, Jensen says, and that's where he places his decoys. He also sets several full-body Canada goose decoys on lower ground, just in case.

Somewhere to the west, the croaking sound of sandhills roosting in a nearby slough penetrates the darkness.

The sky is beginning to lighten when Jensen realizes we've set up in the wrong place. It's too close to the edge of the field and a slough we didn't see in the dark.

The sandhills won't find this spot to their liking, he says. No way.

That sets off a mad 400-yard scramble to reposition decoys and blinds and assorted other gear on a small hill closer to the center of the field.

The move gets made just in time. Something, perhaps duck hunters, spooks the cranes out of the slough and they soon are in the air.

Minutes after the first sandhill is in the bag, three Canada geese fly into range, and Jensen gets two. Birds, mostly sandhills and a few Canada geese, come in fits and spurts, and by late morning, we finish the hunt with seven sandhill cranes and four Canada geese.

All things considered, Jensen is satisfied with the results.

"The first spot was too close to the edge of the field, too close to the water," he said. "We wouldn't have seen anything. We couldn't pinpoint that small hill in the dark. We managed to scratch a few in, and it all worked out."Hunt to remember

Setting up for a crane hunt means rising long before daylight, and the next leg of the day involves breakfast back at the old farmhouse Jensen owns with some hunting buddies.

And, after the birds are cleaned, a welcome nap.

By late afternoon, the mercury has risen into the 80s, and we spend a couple of hours hunkered near the edge of a slough on public land.

Jensen puts on a pass-shooting clinic, bagging his five-duck limit that consists of a shoveler and four gadwalls that blast into the slough at warp-speed. One of his partners shoots four ducks.

As for the third hunter, well ... let's just say he shoots.

There's more scouting and dozens of miles scouring fields after that. Prospects of finding a field to hunt the next morning are starting to dim when Jensen spots another stubble field full of sandhill cranes.

The field is posted, but the landowner willingly grants permission.

If the first day's hunt was memorable, the second morning turns out to be one for the ages. The sandhills come in waves and low to the ground as they approach the decoys bucking a stiff south wind.

The first shots are fired shortly after 7 a.m., and less than an hour later, three hunters have their limits. For some reason, the sandhills are more responsive to decoys than the birds of the previous day. Perhaps, Jensen speculates, it's a larger proportion of young sandhill cranes.

To top off the morning, we get a 15-minute show from two young sandhills that land just beyond the decoys, about 40 yards from our blinds. They pick and preen and occasionally hop before flying off.

"Now that's a crane hunt," Jensen says shortly after 9 a.m., as we pack up to call it a weekend. "That's how good it can get. Yesterday was OK ... today was excellent.

"It doesn't always work like this, but it's nice when it does."