Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR
Much of the refuge protects coastal wet pine savanna habitat crucial to the Mississippi sandhill crane

On our way to visit Biloxi, Mississippi, we noticed two sandhill cranes standing in the median of Interstate 10. In Florida, we see sandhill cranes all the time, so we didn’t think much about it until we picked up a birding brochure later in the day. With only 110 Mississippi sandhill cranes on this planet, we’d just seen a significant sample of the population. It was time to plan a visit to Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.

A Refuge with a Purpose

Bisected by Interstate 10 in Gautier, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, a 19,300-acre refuge, protects one of Mississippi’s most threatened habitats, the wet pine savanna, for the sake of one of six sandhill crane subspecies, the Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla).

Mississippi sandhill cranes
Visitor center diorama of Mississippi sandhill cranes in a mating dance

Most units of the National Wildlife Refuge System exist to provide migratory species with a safe haven during their migrations. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is one of a handful of refuges nationwide established to protect a specific species and the habitat it requires for survival. This small patch of wet pine savannas north of the coastal bayous is the only place in the world that these cranes are found.

Mississippi sandhill crane
A Mississippi sandhill crane searches for insects along the edge of the pine savanna

“They don’t like to travel far,” said Scott Hereford, Wildlife Biologist for the refuge, and that’s why, with the press of development along the Gulf Coast, the species was in decline. By the mid-1970s, less than 35 cranes remained.

The Pine Savanna

On a guided birding tour to see the cranes, Scott led our small party down a dirt road into the crane’s prime habitat, the open wet pine savanna. The broad prairies must be carefully managed with prescribed burning to keep an optimal balance of open spaces to trees. A wander into the prairie meant soggy shoes, since water flows freely across the landscape.

Wet savanna pitcher plants
Look into the dense prairie grasses and you will find pitcher plants

The boggy grassland was dense with colorful carnivorous plants. Glistening like strawberry jaw, sundews set out their sticky leaves to trap insects. Bladderwort and butterwort thrust small blooms towards the sky. But the showiest of the carnivores were the pitcher plants. Although not in bloom during our October visit – they bloom in spring – their trumpets blared in shades of red against the prairie grasses and saw palmettos.

The Mississippi Sandhill Crane’s range is thought to have extended to Florida’s Panhandle and into Louisiana, tied directly to the range of this habitat. Acidic in nature and always wet, the pine savannas weren’t touched by settlers, as they didn’t make good farmland. But after World War II, timber companies plowed under the savannas and planted commercially-viable pines for timber and pulpwood, destroying the majority of this fragile ecosystem in a great swath from Jacksonville, Florida to the bayous of Louisana. Less than 5% of wet pine savanna habitat remains along the Gulf Coastal Plain.

Pine savanna wildflowers Mississippi
Wildflowers are abundant in the savannas in both spring and fall

Revitalizing a Species

The first plans for Interstate 10 through Mississippi’s Gulf Coast helped spark a furor over more loss of habitat, and a population of cranes at great risk of extinction. When Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane was one of the first species put on the list. By creating Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in 1975, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began the longest and largest crane re-introduction in the world.

Working at first with the Patuxent Research Refuge, established in Maryland in 1936 specifically to preserve endangered American wildlife species, the refuge expanded its partnerships to include the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin; the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans; and the White Oak Conservation Center in Florida.

As of our visit in 2013, there were 25 breeding pairs of Mississippi sandhill cranes, and a population of 110 that stay mostly close to home in the savannas of the refuge. Occasionally, motorists will see a pair in the median of I-10, as we did. “We wish they wouldn’t go there,” said the staffer at the visitor center, “but they just don’t read the signs!”

Nesting occurs in April, with both parents incubating the two eggs. To grow the tenuous population of these cranes, the refuge works with its partners to remove eggs from nests and raise the chicks elsewhere. “Normally, a pair will raise only one chick at a time,” said Scott. “If the second egg hatches at all, the chick rarely survives.”

Bird blind Mississippi sandhill crane
Bird blind used by biologists

Scott drove us around to the open-roofed pens where mature chicks, known as colts, are released with wing restraints to get them acclimated to their natural habitat. Fellow cranes can visit and socialize with them, but an electric fence keeps predators out.

“We started releasing chicks into these pens in 1981,” said Hereford, “up to eight at a time. We’ve released over 400 of them since then.” The program has been so successful that 90% of the cranes you see in the wild today were captive-reared and released into the refuge.

Mississippi sandhill crane
Mississippi sandhill crane, as seen on a birding tour

On our return to the savanna, we spotted our third crane, browsing her way across the open grassland. Scott knew her by name. Each carries a radio transmitter so biologists can track their movements. Three more winged overhead as we sat in the van. Seeing 5% of all of the Mississippi Sandhill Cranes on this planet in our first 48 hours in Mississippi was a great start to several days of birding adventures.

Visiting Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR

The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is just north of Exit 61 on Interstate 10 in Gautier at 7200 Crane Lane, Gautier, MS 39553-2500. It is open daily, sunrise to sunset. The Visitor Center is open Tue-Sat 9-3, except Federal holidays. There is no charge to visit the refuge, but donations are gladly accepted. Because of the extreme sensitivity and biodiversity of the wet pine savanna habitat, visitors are asked to stay on marked trails only through areas designated as open. As these are fire-dependent habitats, portions of the refuge may be closed at times for prescribed burns.

October through March is the best time to see the cranes. The refuge offers special biologist-escorted birding tours – such as the one we took – to view the cranes in their natural habitat and to let you see the pens where the young are acclamating to their surroundings. Check the refuge website for details.

Adjoining the Visitor Center, the interpretive Dees Nature Trail is less than half a mile long. It loops through savanna, pine woods, and along the edge of a bayou.

Bayou along the Dees Nature Trail
Bayou along the Dees Nature Trail

It showcases a bounty of spring and fall wildflowers including blazing star, deer’s-tongue, bearded grass-pink orchids, and several species of pitcher plants. We walked it and enjoyed the diversity of wildflowers, reminiscent of coastal savannas in Florida’s Panhandle.

Dees Nature Trail
Our favorite reason to hike in the pine savannas of the Gulf Coast

A second interpretive nature trail, the Fontainebleau Nature Trail, starts south of US 90 in Ocean Springs adjoining Ocean Springs Middle School and leads to the edge of Davis Bayou.