Sandhill Cranes of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park


While in Florida in December and early January, I visited Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a 22,000 acre preserve located on the edge of Gainesville, Florida. Paynes Prairie is very unique with over 20 distinct biological communities that host a significant variety of wildlife, including bison, horses, alligators, and more than 270 species of birds. The Prairie also has a rich history dating back over 12,000 years when its fertile resources were used by Paleo people, Native American Indians, Spanish adventurers and settlers, and eventually farmers and cattle ranchers. When on the Prairie, I can imagine what much of  Florida looked like many years ago.


Although the canal in the below photo is manmade (circa 1930s), the flora and fauna are representative of what is readily seen when on the La Chua Trail on the northeast side of the Prairie.


Sandhill Crane Range Map

This time of year, one of the attractions for me and other visitors are the Sandhill Cranes that winter at Paynes Prairie, having migrated from the north where they nest and breed, although some have become permanent residents in Florida. In 2008, there were over 5,000 Sandhill Cranes and a few Whooping Cranes at the Prairie (see below), but in most years there are one to two thousand. However, due to the drought in Florida over the last couple of years, the number of cranes has been significantly lower. This year, when I was at the Prairie, there were only several hundred (count provided by park volunteer). Some local residents said that the cranes were going to nearby Orange Lake, since it had more water and wetlands. The cranes like to roost overnight in wetland areas to avoid mammal predators, like coyotes and foxes.  Nevertheless, seeing and photographing the Sandhill Cranes, no matter how many are there, is always enjoyable and rewarding.

I took the below image in 2008, when a large group of cranes was taking off early in the morning. Among the Sandhills were two Whooping Cranes.

Sandhill and Whooping Cranes

Below are several images of the Sandhill Cranes flying back to the Prairie after feeding at local fields, farms and ranches, and other wetlands. Flying Sandhill Crane silhouettes are striking against a sunrise or sunsetting sky. The first two are sunrise shots.

Sandhill Cranes at Sunrise 2

Sandhill Cranes at Sunrise




When I was at the Prairie, the cranes were roosting far into the Prairie and mostly out of sight, but within hearing distance. In fact, their loud trumpeting calls can be heard all over the Prairie. I can usually hear them before I see them in the sky, which is a benefit when trying to locate them to photograph.

Since it was not possible to closely photograph the cranes on the Prairie, I went to a local field where they were feeding, which is where I captured the following images.


Above three Sandhill Cranes feed, while one keeps guard.


Sandhill Cranes may not be the most attractive birds, but their size (3 to 4 feet), long legs and necks, and bright red heads and behavior make them interesting to observe and photograph. They can live 20 years and do not begin breeding until after two years. They mate for life, and when they migrate, the family migrates together. Sandhill Cranes feed mostly on grains and seeds, some insects, other invertebrates, and small vertebrates.

Below are two different Sandhill Cranes preening their feathers. When their feathers are fluffed out, more color and detail is plainly visible.



The below crane did not want to pose for me any longer and took off, trumpeting loudly as it flew by.


I could not resist capturing some profile images, highlighting their bright red heads and orange eyes.


Sandhill-Crane-ProfileSandhill-Crane-HeadshotThe above images are of three different cranes. In the first two images, the cranes’ long beaks are covered in dirt and other debris. They had not cleaned their beaks after feeding (and before posing for me). The third crane is more neat and proper (clean beak); therefore, I would guess it would be a female. Their sex is not distinguishable, other than by size, with the males being a little larger. In Florida, Sandhill Cranes are protected and, if killed, carry a very high fine. However, that is not the case in other states, which allow them to be hunted. Hard to imagine.

I have many more images to be reviewed and processed from my recent trip to Florida. I plan to include them in another blog article before leaving for Honduras. I am going to the rain forests of Honduras soon to photograph some of its very unique and interesting wildlife. Yes, I am excited, been doing a lot of preparation, and very much looking forward to it.

About Stephen L Tabone

Retired Executive Consultant and Nature Photographer
This entry was posted in Bird Photographs, Nature, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, Wildlife and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Sandhill Cranes of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

  1. Ernie Sears says:

    Great post! Entertaining, educational and the images are outstanding!!!

  2. These are wonderful birds and great shots of them. I’ve photographed the flocks on the Sacramento Plain over the past two years. It’s too cool when the birds, spread throughout the plain during the day for feeding, return to the primary roost at sundown for protection at night (involves hundreds of birds).

  3. Jim Flowers says:

    Totally cool and I’m “Totally Jealous Too”!!!! The images are outstanding and have me drooling with envy!!!!! “Darn You”… I look for these birds on every trip home to Texas. I always miss out on them! Nice work Stephen!!!!!!


  4. Jim Flowers says:

    Darn You!!!! You just made me sick!!!!! dammit!!!!!

    I’m totally jealous and drooling with envy! I try to find these guys on every trip home to Texas..

    “One of these days!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”


    PS… Awesome Work Stephen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    fantastic photos… always…..

  6. Venezia Maryann says:

    fantastic shots….as always…… MARYANN

  7. Mac says:

    They have spoken eloquently of your work. All I can add is WOW and WOW.

  8. clover58 says:

    Another wonderful, informative post, Steve. I especially like the crane taking off when tired of posing for you — an amazing capture!

  9. Great photos as always and so informative, too. I think these birds are beautiful!

  10. TSouthall says:

    Many thanks for your great photos and article. This last week, October 12, 2014, I twice saw a group of four cranes feeding on my neighbors lawn in NW gainesville about six miles NW from payees p. Terrific delight to see these huge birds closeup not just in the wild.

  11. Daniel B Record says:

    I live in Tavares, Florida . Last week I was setting on the back porch of my friends house in Port Hope, Michigan when 10 , Sand Hill Cranes landed about 50 yards out in the wetlands. I was shocked, I did not know they flew this for North. Boy I was shocked.

    • Daniel–thank you for sharing the Sandhill Crane event. What an amazing sight that must have been! Yes, most Sandhill Cranes migrate from Florida or the south west/Arizona, where they winter, to our northern states and Canada. I hope you see many more up there. STEVE

  12. Tristine says:

    Reblogged this on tristinebarryphotography and commented:
    What an inspiration for this very new-in-the-field photographer. Thank you Steve!

  13. Tristine says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your incredible pictures. I don’t live far from Gainesville but I had no idea this place existed. I am an amateur photographer who LOVES the Sandhills. I really am fascinated and appreciate being able to view them here and to learn . 🙂

    • Thank you for the comment Tristine. When you are go to Paynes Prairie, be sure to go to the La Chua Trail on the north side of the Prairie. That is where you will see most wildlife. Also, The City of Gainesville recently opening Sweetwater Preserve, which is adjacent to the Prairie and a fantastic place to many species of birds. I believe it is only open on weekends. Good luck and let me know how to do.

      • Tristine says:

        Thank you Stephen. I hope to go. I am just started with my point amd shoot.Cannon SX50 Powershot. I appreciate the reply and kindness to this newbie.

      • Tristine says:

        Hi Stephen. What have you been up to lately? I am getting a little better at my photograpy. I haven’t made it to Paynes Prairie yet but it is on my list.

  14. Leah says:

    Hi Stephen! I am a reporter at WUFT News in Gainesville doing a story on the lack of sandhill cranes this year. I saw some of your photos of the cranes from 2008 and would love to use them and give you credit of course. please comment back or email me at if you would like to share these photos with me!

  15. Pingback: Charles W. Brice: Walking Townsend Road, Petoskey, Michigan | Vox Populi

  16. LYNN STONE says:

    The hunting of Sandhill Cranes is permitted in some other states, certainly not in every other state that Sandhill Cranes frequent. Florida’s resident Sandhill Cranes are difficult to distinguish from most of the northern visitors, but they actually represent a distinct race, the so-called Florida Sandhill Crane, known to science as Grus canadensis pratensis. Sandhills migrating from the north, largely the Greater Sandhill Cranes, represent yet another race or subspecies. In contrast to the long migratory flights made by Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes from northern states and Canada, Florida Sandhill Cranes are essentially non-migratory, just as the Cuban and Mississippi subspecies are. I’ll visit Paine Prairie this week. Hopefully some of your luck with the cranes will wear off on me.

  17. David Broscius says:

    I saw 4 sand hill cranes at my farm in Wilmont twp Bradford county last spring. The first time I saw them was in Dubois WY 10 years ago. I was very surprised to see them in PA. I didn’t know PA was in their range. I’m hoping I see them again this spring so I can take pictures.

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