Nature Notes: A Sedge of Cranes
By Katie Krouse
Have you traveled to Nebraska to experience the sandhill crane migration? If not, I highly recommend it!
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to visit the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary to experience the humbling migration of sandhill cranes. When I say humbling, I mean humbling -overwhelming – magnificent – empowering – spectacular! It was anything but usual. Living in northeast Wisconsin, I’ve been entranced seeing just a few cranes in a cornfield. Sometimes seeing as many as 10-20 cranes in a field sharing a meal, doing a mating dance, and teaching their young a thing or two about being a crane. It is such a treat to stop and simply watch. I’m inspired every time I see these birds locally, and I was especially excited to experience cranes in a different context.
We were lucky to participate in a guided experience with volunteers of the Rowe Sanctuary. We arrived at the Sanctuary just before 6am. It was a chilly morning (11 degrees Fahrenheit) but we didn’t mind. There were easily 100 people convening at the Sanctuary that morning, preparing to see something truly spectacular. People were visiting from all over. Some had visited before, some (like myself) were preparing to experience this phenomenon for the first time.
We were separated into smaller groups and linked up with our volunteer guides Dudley and Barbara. Dudley started out our experience by telling our group that he has lived in the area his whole life and has been volunteering at the Sanctuary for over 50 years. Dudley and Barbara reminded me of the incredible volunteers we have here at The Ridges. They were passionate, inspired, and absolutely loved what they were doing.
Dudley and Barbara took us on a short walk (in the dark) to a nearby bird blind. The blind was large and comfortable and positioned us in the perfect place to look out at the Platte River. We were instructed to remain absolutely quiet and simply wait for the sun to rise. We were prepared before we went out that there could be any number of cranes in the proximity of our bird blind – ten, hundreds, thousands – we just wouldn’t know until it was light enough to see. As soon as we arrived at the blind, and in the still darkness, we could hear the soft trills of a few cranes. We thought there were maybe 10-15 cranes in our view and were excited for it to get lighter so we could see more. We spotted a muskrat and some Green-winged Teals directly in front of the blind. As the sun rose, the soft trills of the cranes got louder. About 15 minutes after we thought there were 10-15 cranes, we realized there were more like a few hundred. And as it got even brighter out, we were clearly corrected by our observations. There were easily more than 100,000 in our view. What we thought were riverbanks were lines of cranes packed into a single corridor. It was spectacular! The brighter it got the more active the cranes became. Communicating with each other for what we jokingly described as “making their plans for the day.”
As the morning went on, we caught sight of a bald eagle feeding near the cranes. We were intrigued by the sight, and wondered if the cranes would be threatened by the eagle’s presence. Dudley explained that bald eagles are a predator of cranes but will only pursue injured or vulnerable birds. The cranes seemed fine with the eagle’s presence while it was stationary and feeding. However, the moment the eagle took off, the cranes dispersed. It was SPECTACULAR! Thousands of cranes taking off all at the same time, to seemingly stay away from the eagle. Many cranes stayed behind and once the eagle landed, they seemed to calm down and went back to their conversations. Again, the eagle took off and spooked another grouping of birds. This happened a number of times before the eagle finally left the area, leaving the cranes alone.
Between the magnitude of cranes, the eagle, and the general river life, we had a great deal of entertainment. We could have stayed all morning to see the activity, but was clear that the birds were ready to head off to their feeding grounds, before coming back in the evening to sleep off the day of activity.
We began our trek back to the nature center and were ready to ask Dudley as many questions as we could. Dudley was kind to share his time with us. While we were observing the cranes, there was a low-flying plane that caught our attention. We were curious if this had anything to do with the cranes, and Dudley excitedly explained the purpose of the plane. The plane was part of a count study that is being conducted in the area. Each morning the plane heads out with “certified counters” to get a good idea of how many cranes are along the Platte River. The birds are counted by reviewing 5-second images, and determining how many cranes are in the photo. One strategy used by counters is they figure out how many cranes fit under your own thumb and indicate how many “thumbs worth of cranes” are in the photo. These counters are so skilled that when they check their work after flight, they are accurate within 1,000 birds. This is a significant success considering in a recent count, they recorded more than ONE MILLION cranes! During our walk back, Dudley took the time to share with us some of the important citizen (community) science research being conducted throughout the Platte River Valley. The commitment of the volunteers, staff, and community was inspiring and has further supported the sandhill crane populations.
This was an experience I will never forget. To be in the presence of one of the largest congregations of a single species of bird on the planet was humbling. These birds are preparing for a continued journey to their nesting grounds in the Dakotas and Canada. From here they’ll spread out, but for a short time, they come together and prepare for a continued journey. And each year, they’ll convene in the same place, where the food is good, and the habitat is perfect. I’ve already made plans to return and am excited to interact with these majestic birds throughout the Door County spring/summer season.
Learn About Cranes in Door County:
Door County hosts one of Wisconsin’s two crane species: Sandhill Cranes. Their calls, also known as bugles, are often the first signs of spring here in Door County. They begin to appear in farm fields in mid to late March, returning from their winter habitat in the southern United States. Cranes make nests from vegetation in wetland habitats such as swales, bogs, and marshes. Sandhill cranes mate for life, making elaborate courting dances to find their life partners. Cranes usually produce 1-3 eggs every nesting season. You can often see young cranes with their parents foraging for insects and plants in farm fields and wetlands throughout the county in the summertime.
If you grew up in Door County, or anywhere in Wisconsin, you may not remember Sandhill Cranes from your childhood. In fact, there were no recordings of cranes in Door County until 1980. Due to conservation efforts, populations of Sandhill Cranes have increased over the second half of the 20th century, and cranes have made their way into northern Wisconsin wetlands!
Want to learn more about Sandhill cranes? You can learn more about their behaviors, habitats, and population resurgence during our Crane Symposium on April 14th and 15th.
Join us in celebration of Wisconsin’s cranes on April 14th and 15th!
Together we’ll explore cranes through art, learn why populations have been increasing in recent years, learn about the importance of protecting crane habitat, and have the opportunity to participate in citizen science!
Keynote Presentation: What Have We Done to Deserve All These Cranes? With Professor Stanley Temple
April 14th @ 6:00 pm-7:30 pm
In recent years islands and sandbars along the Wisconsin River have hosted ever-growing numbers of Greater Sandhill Cranes as they prepare to depart for their wintering areas. Flocks of upwards of 10,000 birds converge on the stretch of the river above and below the Aldo Leopold’s Shack each fall. That’s a large proportion of the cranes that now nest in Wisconsin. Why has there been such an impressive resurgence in the crane population since Aldo Leopold worried about its impending extirpation 80 years ago, and what attracts all these birds to the vicinity of the Shack? Professor Stan Temple will review the remarkable recovery of Midwestern sandhill cranes, describe their migratory behavior and discuss some of the recent controversies, such as crane hunting, that have attended their new status as an abundant bird. Preregistration is required to gain access to the Zoom link for the presentation.
Location: Virtual via Zoom – Fee: Free
Click here to register.
Midwest Crane Count
April 15 @ 5:30 am – 7:30 am
The International Crane Foundation sponsors the Annual Midwest Crane Count as a part of its mission to conserve the world’s 15 species of cranes and the natural communities on which they depend. Observations of Sandhill Cranes can lend insight into threatened crane species, including the endangered Whooping Crane.
Location: Sites throughout Door County – Fee: None
Contact Sam Hoffman for more information at (920)-839-2802 extension 108.
Crane Nest Site Hike with Jane Whitney
April 15 @ 10:00 am – 12:00 pm (PROGRAM FULL)
Join Naturalist Jane Whitney on a hike to a popular crane nesting site to learn about crane nesting sites and what makes the wetlands of Door County the perfect crane nesting habitat.
Location: Meets at Cook-Fuller Nature Center, 8166 State Hwy 57, Baileys Harbor – Fee: $15 Public | $12 Member | $5 16 & Under
Symposium Reception with Artist Thomas Jewell and Land Manager Sam Hoffman
April 15 @ 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Join us at the Cook-Fuller Nature Center for an afternoon in celebration of Wisconsin Cranes, featuring “Door County Wildlife in Watercolor”, artwork by Wisconsin artist, Thomas Jewell. This exhibit showcases original illustrations from Jewell’s book about a crane, “Tig of the Marsh and Wetland” along with newly completed works of wildlife at The Ridges. At 1:30 pm, Thomas Jewell will give an artist talk on this exhibit and the process of his work. His artist talk will be followed by a presentation by Ridges Land Manager Sam Hoffman, who will discuss past crane count data and the importance of wetland protection in Door County for Midwest crane populations.
Location: Cook-Fuller Nature Center, 8166 State Hwy 57, Baileys Harbor – Fee: None
Door County Wildlife in Watercolor: Works by Thomas Jewell
April 15 @ 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Thomas Jewell brings the wild species of Door County to life with watercolor. See the Great Horned Owl, Blue Heron, Sandhill Crane, Mighty Buck and others in vibrant color at The Ridges Cook-Albert Fuller Nature Center. This exhibition features new works along with original illustrations from the book Tig of the Marsh and Wetland, a children’s book telling the story of a Sandhill Crane named Tig. An Artist Talk and Reception will be held during the Crane Symposium on April 15th. Works will be on view from April 3rd through May 22nd. All are welcome.
Location: Cook-Fuller Nature Center, 8166 State Hwy 57, Baileys Harbor – Fee: None