GRANTSBURG, WIS. - The morning was a gift, the sun appearing in the clearest of skies and setting fire to the eastern horizon. With the sun came a warm golden veil that draped everything in its path: human, creature, landscape.
As if that wasn’t enough beauty to fill the spirit, the horizon began filling, too, with movement and chatter. It was mid-autumn, and greater sandhill cranes were center stage and rising up. All good because it was the sandhills that I and outdoors writer and photographer Jeff Moravec were up early to witness, a migratory delight here that can extend well into November.
We had dropped in on one of the cranes’ favorite rest stops along their journey south: Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near the village of Grantsburg. The refuge is the largest of its kind in Wisconsin, and a few hours before sunrise and in a chill south of 30 degrees, we made the 90-minute drive north from the Twin Cities. Once there, just blocks north of the village, we left civilization, following a mainly dirt road maze past prairie and wetlands.
All seemed asleep while things transitioned from night to day. Then, sparrows darted across Phantom Lake Road and flew for a time in front of my car headlights, as if guiding us deeper into the refuge. It was a small but fitting gesture that brought to mind the idea that something bigger awaited us.
The sky took in more light and with it more life. We saw an egret standing sentry in a sedge marsh. Shorebirds milled around. There were some other early rising humans out, too, who beat us here and joined us in curiosity at what morning would deliver.
Crex Meadows Wildlife Area spreads out more than 30,000 acres, with 40 miles of roads coursing through it. I found it hard to imagine that such a vast, pristine area was in a second life of sorts after its wetlands were drained and the area’s ecology upset in the late 1800s in the name of industry and, at times, agriculture. Thank goodness the state of Wisconsin began efforts to restore the area to its brush prairie and marshes in the mid-1940s. Now it’s a birding destination like few others anywhere, a gem in the Midwest.
Sandhills, whose numbers are stable or even increasing, have for decades found a safe haven here during their migration toward Florida and points south, and that became more apparent by the minute during our visit. Some were anchored on muddy peninsulas, long necks and red crowns poking above marsh grasses. Others propelled through the sky, all legs and wings, or dropped their gear for unexpectedly graceful landings. For all the building action, there was a synchronicity that I found calming, this ancient rhythm playing out on another autumn morning.
Bob Rorke of Edina exited his Subaru nearby, and later joined us in the silence and new light. Cranes came and went, or suddenly appeared overhead, many likely headed to feed on corn and soybeans in the farm fields south of town and Hwy. 70.
Rorke, who’d also made a trip to the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Zimmerman, Minn., to watch cranes this fall, marveled at the morning. “That melodic sound, it’s absolutely wonderful,” he said to a soundtrack of rattling calls and honks that got louder by the minute.
Many of the birds danced and hopped — actually, bounced — wings slightly extended, bringing to mind cross-country runners at the start line waiting for the gun in the anticipation of the start on a chilly afternoon.
My companion, Jeff, who has visited Crex multiple times, and I watched cranes in various numbers over an hour or so before moving to the northern end of Crex. One group of a dozen or more sandhills rose out of some grass, but that was the largest group we saw. The numbers were lighter than we expected, and I learned that we weren’t the only ones to notice. Crex biologist Steve Hoffman has heard the same from visitors, and noticed it firsthand.
“We’ve seen some slight changes in roosting,” Hoffman said. “They are not quite as concentrated in the refuge as years past.”
Hoffman said he has heard that more birds than usual have been seen roosting at Fish Lake Wildlife Area just a few miles south and west of Grantsburg. It’s that area, too, where many find food on farmland during the day. “They are pretty omnivorous. Whatever they find out there, they are going to try to eat.”
At the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff did “flyout” counts on the morning of Oct. 28 in the Crex and Fish Lake. Cranes at Crex totaled 5,601; at Fish Lake, 5,678. Hoffman said another count is Nov. 9.
“If the weather and past history holds, I would expect to see more birds here at that time,” Hoffman said.
The agency has asked for a follow-up count in recent years because it’s noticed the number of birds migrating later. Last year, more than 10,000 cranes were counted the last week of October. There were 13,000 birds a few weeks later. Hoffman believes the “quick and dirty answer” is milder weather. “It was not uncommon 20 years ago for us to be froze up by Nov. 1.”
There still is time to see cranes in this bountiful region. In fact, the “Grantsburg Area Bird List” on the Crex website with reports from visitors and volunteers referred to multiple birds. A visitor who posted to the popular eBird website noted seeing 15 species Oct. 25, from greater yellowleg shorebirds to hooded mergansers to pied-billed grebes. “The birds will hang around, but the people coming aren’t here,” Hoffman said with a laugh.