Counting Cranes

Each spring a group of volunteers diverge throughout Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas near Grantsburg Wisconsin to survey the marshlands for Sandhill Cranes. The goal is to get a handle on how many breeding pairs of cranes exist in the midwest and is sponsored by the International Crane Foundation. The survey takes place in mid-April when migration from the south is complete and the crane pairs have staked out their nesting territories for the season.

Most of the cranes observed in the spring are wither breeding pairs or their young from the precious season who return to the marshes with their parents. The participants are trained to listen for the different types of calls that Sandhill Cranes make during the breeding season to determine if they are breeding pairs or not.

My survey section (#24) covers the southwest corner of Fish Lake Wildlife Area, a 15,000 acre mix of marshland, woodlands and brush prairie in the southwest part of Burnett County. County Road O runs along the southern border, Shogren Road along the west, and a two rut trail called Southwest Dike Cutoff cuts through the northern and eastern areas of the section.

I decided to drive the route in my Prius, figuring the SW Dike cutoff was likely too muddy for even my suburban. I enjoy doing surveys that require listening (and birding in general) in the Prius because it is so quiet and I can often sneak up on wildlife in it.

The survey begins at 5:30 a.m. and we are supposed to run the survey until 7:30 a.m. All the participants are expected to begin and end at the same time to ensure we do not double count any cranes. It is still pretty dark at 5:30, and I usually don’t really begin hearing or seeing cranes until closer to 6:00 a.m., which was again the case this year.

I began at the southeast corner of my section on County Road O. I heard my first pair of Sandhill cranes when I drove in to a parking area a few hundred yards from the starting point. The pair was doing their unison call from somewhere west of where I was, not far, maybe 100 yards into a marsh. I drove back to the road and turned west. I looked to see if I could see the pair in the wetland north of the road. I heard them call a few times, but never saw them. The marshy area had many curves of high ground interspersed along the edges, so I could not see the entire area, and the light was just beginning to improve. But hearing them was good enough so I wrote down the observation on the data sheet.

Sedge marsh north from the Southwest Dike cutoff

I continued west along County O. There is a large wetland cleverly named County O Flowages that spans a half mile on the north side of the road, with open water along the road and an expansive sedge marsh to the north. There I heard two more pair. I scanned the sedges with my binoculars and located the closet pair. I recorded them and moved on.

I headed north on Shogren Road where I observed a few more cranes, then turned around when I reached the northern edge of my section. I had decided that I wanted to risk taking the Southwest Dike Cutoff, so I turned my little car onto the two wheel rut trail and prepared for a harrowing drive. The trail had a light covering of snow from the storm that moved through a day or two before. But it was remarkably driveable. I had worried that the trail would be muddy, but the overnight freeze had hardened the thawing ground and there had not been any traffic on the trail so it was pretty smooth overall. There are areas where the clearance is tight for my low-clearance car, but I made it through and I wad glad I hade decided to take the risk.

Sandhill Crane tracks on the dike trail

The cutoff is a man-made dike road that winds through a large sedge marsh. There are a couple islands of woodlands too, so it is a neat trail for birding and other nature observing. The sun had just come up above the horizon when I was on the dike and the marshes glowed in the new daylight. I observed several more pairs and a couple young cranes. I also took a few pictures. I finished the survey on the dike and made my way off the trail back onto County O right as it 7:30 came around.

I headed back toward Grantsburg via Stolte Road, taking a detour on the trail to the parking lot at Dueholm Flowage and stopping to video tape a pair of cranes on Cordoray Dike. The crane count was a success, with over 30 cranes and 17 pairs observed during the two hour observation period. Definitely worth getting up at 5 a.m for.

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