Katie’s Sightings

By Katie O’Hara Kelly

Taken with permission from northyubanaturalist.blogspot.com

This week my friends Rod and Rochelle and I went on our annual Spring trip to Sierra Valley. Every year we see something unexpected, and this year was no exception! We were a little bit early for a lot of the songbirds, but the waterfowl were numerous! It was a beautiful blue-sky day with a hint of clouds, and lots of water in the Valley! Right away we started seeing pairs of Sandhill Cranes! The pair pictured above were foraging on the edge of the wetlands. They are mainly herbivores, but will also prey on small mammals, insects, snails, reptiles, and amphibians. Sandhill Cranes are one of North America’s large birds. They are approximately 4 feet tall, weigh 10 lbs, and have a wingspan of up to 7 feet!

As we were driving along, I spotted a pair of cranes on dry land. One of the cranes had its wings outstretched. We hadn’t ever seen this behavior before so we stopped to see what might happen. To our complete surprise, the crane to the left hopped up on top of the one with the outstretched wings and they mated! The mating lasted for just a few seconds, and then the male hopped off the female! WOW!!! Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and probably mate many times during the breeding season. Although most of the Sandhill Cranes that overwinter in California breed farther north in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, a dozen or more pairs mate and raise their young in Sierra Valley. They build their nests out of dried vegetation on small dirt “islands” in the wetlands, or floating right on top of the water! There are 1-3 eggs laid in a clutch. The incubation period is approximately 30 days, and both the male and female share the incubating. The young are born precocial (covered in down with eyes open) and can leave the nest within one day after birth! They usually stay together as a family group for 9-10 months. We’ll have to come back in a month or so to look for some young Sandhills! Now that would be something!

Around 2:00 in the afternoon, Rochelle spotted a HERD of American Pronghorns in the sagebrush! WOW!!! We had never seen this many Pronghorns together in one group! I couldn’t get an accurate count, as they were in a sagebrush thicket, but there were somewhere between 15 and 20 individuals! Most of them looked like females! Of course they didn’t linger, and quickly headed east and out of sight! They were absolutely amazing to watch! We couldn’t believe our luck!

Pronghorns are not antelopes, and are not related to antelopes, but are often known colloquially in North America as the American antelope, prong buck, pronghorn antelope, prairie antelope, or simply antelope. They are the ONLY species in their Antilocapridae Family, and the only animal on earth that has branching horns that are shed annually. They are more closely related to giraffes than to the antelopes that are indigenous to various regions in Africa and Eurasia, comprising of many species of even-toed ruminants such as gazelles. Many (but not all) pronghorn herds are migratory, traveling long distances to warmer climates in the fall, and back to greener locations in the spring.

Breeding doesn’t occur until mid-September to October when males acquire small harems of females. One to two offspring are born the following spring. They are usually weaned in three weeks, but will remain with their mother for a year and a half. What a thrill it was to watch these amazing, wild, native mammals!

Pronghorns are the swiftest animals in North America, and have been recorded running as fast as 59 mph! They can outrun any predator! Their limbs are cursorial (built for speed) but not for jumping. Fences have had a detrimental effect on their population, as they cannot jump over them. They need to live in areas that are wide open and basically treeless, like Sierra Valley. They feed on a wide variety of plants, especially sagebrush in the winter.

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