Mississippi Sandhill Cranes
By Ell Hawley
The breeze blows through the pine trees, generating a low hum that makes you stop and listen to everything around you. This is the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge at its best. In the distance, the sound of the Mississippi sandhill cranes calling to one another makes you hold your breath (and smile). Their caw ca caw as they call to one another has power behind it that seems to echo. Not that many years ago, there were but five or so nesting pairs left in the wild (in the whole world). That made them the rarest bird in North America and one of the rarest birds on Earth. Due to the refuge and their restoration of 19,000 acres of wet-pine-savannah habitat, there are now at least 129 individual cranes.
The refuge is only twenty minutes from the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi. But it seems much farther than that from the casinos that have sprung up on the Gulf Coast.
There is a stillness at this refuge—enough to want to call it a sanctuary. It’s flat (think prairie). Along the C. L. Dees Nature Trail, paved by nature with grass, you’ll see pitcher plants grabbing dinner and wildflowers of every sort, along with colorful wild orchids. This place has some of the most diverse plants in North America. Frogs and crickets will entertain you with their songs. Birds of all colors are everywhere, flitting about. Many birds stopover here in the annual migration. It’s enough for you to take a bench and willingly ground yourself in nature’s peace.
The Mississippi sandhill crane is tall at four and a half feet. Its distinct bright-red head and white cheek patch draw you to it. Its neck, back, and legs are gray. These majestic cranes mate for life and will live up to twenty-five years. Seeing them in flight is impressive with their six-foot wingspan.
The visitor center is free, the nature walks are free, and the peace is free. Come visit nature in all her majesty Monday through Saturday, from dawn to dusk.