In 2000 and 2001, Scott Melvin documented breeding by a pair of sandhill cranes at the southern end of Messalonskee Lake in Kennebec County. This exciting discovery was the first record of breeding by this species in the state.

Multiple pairs now nest in this area. In addition, Maine birders have found other sandhill cranes in the late spring and summer. Locations include North Yarmouth, Auburn, Leeds, Chelsea, Manchester, Fryeburg, Smithfield, New Gloucester, Orland, Surry, Unity and Mount Desert Island. At least some of these cranes may be breeders as well.

The breeding range of sandhill cranes spans the western two-thirds of Canada into Alaska, with some breeding in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Most of these birds winter in west Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Mexico.

Sandhill cranes migrate in groups, with families staying together. They fly in the efficient V formation and tend to stop at traditional stop-over areas – the Platte River in Nebraska is one of the best known. In the spring, half a million cranes stop along 70 miles of the river, delighting birders and naturalists.

A resident, nonmigratory population occurs in peninsular Florida – the first sandhill crane I ever saw flew above me when I was running a road race in Melbourne. The size, color and extended neck, different from the S-shaped neck of a heron in flight, clinched the identification.

We know that some bird ranges are changing. Most of these changes we attribute to global climate charge. Fifty years ago, turkey vultures, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, northern mockingbirds, blue-winged warblers and northern cardinals were not part of Maine’s avifauna.

But how do we explain the arrival of sandhill cranes as breeders and migrants here, when Maine is south of most of their breeding areas?

We know that the population of sandhill cranes in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and western Ontario is doing well. The population there nearly doubled between 1980 and 1995 and continues to grow. Some of these birds seem to be dispersing east. Recent nesting has occurred in northwestern Pennsylvania, southeastern Ontario and Quebec.

We do not know if the recent breeding in Maine represents a true range expansion or a recolonization of a species that was extirpated 200 years or more. We have some historical accounts from the 1600s and 1700s referring to cranes in Maine and Nova Scotia. However, those authors may have confused cranes with herons. It does seem clear that some cranes migrated all along the eastern seaboard in the 1600s before succumbing to human depredation.

If you want to see these magnificent birds, Messalonskee Lake is the place to go. From Interstate 95, take Exit 112 in Augusta and head northwest on Route 27 for about 7 miles. On the right, there is a parking area where a motorboat launch was once located.

Scan to the south from the floating dock. Then go 350 yards north to Hammond Lumber. From the parking lot, scan the marsh. A little patience will usually reveal a crane or two.

Mallards in Maine

Mallards are common birds in Maine – even the most casual Maine birder has likely seen this species. But you wouldn’t think so based on the maps in several bird field guides. Jane Coryell has been enjoying mallards for years on Togus Pond in Augusta. She happened to notice that the Peterson Field Guide, the Stokes Field Guide and the Sibley Guide to Birds (first edition) all fail to show mallards in Maine on the range maps. Is this error a coincidence or the perpetuation of an error by one author in others’ field guides?

This oversight is one more example of why we should be skeptical about what we read. Paper does not refuse ink.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at

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