Barren River Lake

Sandhill cranes typically roost on Barren River Lake's mud flats when the lake is at winter pool, but this year the mud flats are under water leaving the cranes no place to roost on the lake. This is what the lake looked like from the Beaver Creek Campground parking lot on Wednesday. 

LUCAS — In the winter, it's not uncommon to hear the call of sandhill cranes as they fly over southcentral Kentucky when migrating south to Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, making a winter stop to rest on the mud flats of Barren River Lake.

This year, however, the birds chose not to make a stop at Barren River Lake during their migration.

“We have had fewer birds moving last year and this year both. With the warm temperatures, the birds just are not coming as far south as they have the last couple of winters,” said John Brujnes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We've seen the last two or three winter with warm (temperatures), we've had a dramatically lower number of birds around and the ones that do come with all the rain Barren River Lake is at summer pool or above, which means the mud flats where they roost or hang out are under water and there's really just no where for them to stay.”

In years past, the Barren River Lake State Resort Park has hosted sandhill crane tours in late January to give the public a chance to learn more about the birds and an opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, whether that be when they are feeding in nearby corn and soybean fields or roosting on the lake's mud flats.

But this year, the tours have been cancelled.

A decision was made on Monday to cancel the sandhill crane tours that had been planned for this year.

“We are not seeing as many birds this year,” said Gil Lawson, information officer for Kentucky State Parks.

Lawson continued that Kentucky State Parks had hoped to have the sandhill crane tours this year, but canceled them due to the water level of the lake.

Each winter the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drains Barren River Lake in an effort to alleviate flooding during the rainy season. When the lake is at winter pool, the water level is 528 feet. On Wednesday, the water level of the lake was 557.5 feet, which is 29.5 feet above winter pool.

“We are definitely above what would be our normal operating level because it has been so wet,” said Dan Taylor, lead ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Barren River Lake.

The warm, wet winters are not likely to have a long-term effect on the sandhill cranes' migration. Whether or not they stop at Barren River Lake is dependent on weather conditions for each year.

“In 2017, our peak number of birds was over 20,000 in the state. It was a cold winter. They are just going to fluctuate some,” Brujnes said.

The population of sandhill cranes that pass through southcentral Kentucky during their migration south is a relatively young group of birds.

“Ten years ago there was a third as many birds as there are now,” he said. “As it grows, what they are going to do is change dramatically. Ten years ago every single bird in the population went to Florida regardless of weather and now they are deciding we don't really have to do that. We can hang out here in Indiana. There was a huge group of birds still in Ontario the other day. It's going to be some years where we have tons and tons of birds and some years where we don't."

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