The word is in and the unanimous word is that my Sandhill Crane is a juvenile Great Blue Heron. Sigh. The good news is that the only item on my bucket list was to get 150 species on my farm list. Now I'm back to 149 and can live longer.
Dan Gleason, ornithologist and professor, gave a great way to distinguish cranes from herons: Look at the neck and you can see the kink in the middle. This is an anatomical feature of all herons and not something that you would see on a crane. If you look at a skeleton of a heron you can see where two of the vertebrae connect in a way that makes a kink rather than a smooth “S” curve. This allows the head to sit just slightly more rearward and muscles that attach here can provide just a bit of extra thrust to move the head forward, like a spear-thrower. Another feature that occurs internally at this point in the neck is the position of the gullet. For most birds, the gullet runs from the mouth along the front of the neck and into the stomach. In herons, right at the point of this kink, the gullet runs from the front of the neck to the rear of the neck. This protects the gullet from being crushed when the heron stabs for prey in the water. It is right at this kink where the neck makes hard contact with the surface of the water, thus the tissues along the front of the neck and the vertebrae of the neck protect the gullet. Cranes have a smoothly curved neck and because they are not plunging their neck into water forcibly, there is no need for the gullet to be protected as in herons.