Sandhill cranes and October Light: an autumn visit to Crex Meadows

Photo by Leighton Siegel
Sandhill cranes in flight.

Sandhill cranes in numbers above 10,000 have gathered in and near the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, and on Sunday a fair number of them graced the afternoon vistas for a small group of MinnPost supporters.

Birding is a longtime interest of Leighton and Dianne Siegel and of David and Shelly Rottenberg; Leighton and David are avid wildlife photographers besides.

All were making their first visit to this 30,000-acre birders’ paradise near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, unless you count the Siegels’ brief drive-by this summer, a spontaneous nonstop foray with windows rolled up against fierce swarms of black flies.

Black flies weren’t a problem for us on Sunday afternoon, a paragon of autumn splendor with foliage colors just past peak and the whole landscape glowing as if illuminated from within by October Light.

Swarms of small, ruby-bodied dragonflies rose occasionally from the grassy wetland edges, adding interest but no annoyance to the scene, and long skeins of Canada geese stretched across the sky.

Under a pale and cloudless ceiling the reaches of open water were so saturated, so blue they seemed positively unnatural. The intensity and overhead angle of the light presented a challenge to photography, Leighton explained, but as you can see from his images here and on his web page, he handled it expertly.

There were more trumpeter swans in the Crex wetlands than Sallie and I had seen in previous visits, including a family grouping of parent and five young.

Photo by Leighton Siegel
There were more trumpeter swans in the Crex wetlands than Sallie and I had seen in previous visits.

Over a four-hour stretch, our party’s list grew to include bald eagles, crows, bluejays, red-winged blackbirds and a pied-billed grebe, a fair number of sparrows, a northern harrier and an osprey, one ruffed grouse and a mystery waterfowl – canvasback? – which David and I studied at length through his spotting scope, eyes watering from the wind off the water, without finding a positive match in his Sibley’s guide. (And, thanks to David’s instruction, I may now be able to identify the less colorful female red-winged blackbirds as well as the aptly named males.)

But as often at Crex, the sandhills were the stars.

For virtually the entire visit these dinosaur birds, their body plan unchanged since perhaps Eocene times, were either in view or earshot.

Cranes packing up for Florida

They are preparing now for the southward migration to their wintering grounds in Florida, bulking up on corn and soybeans in Crex’s crop areas and on surrounding farms, and the best time to find them in their nesting areas now is early morning and late afternoon.

It’s not like springtime, when they’re settling in after the long journey north. They seem indifferent then to close human presence as they wade and work in weeds right up to the roadside, feeding and daubing each other with mud for protective camouflage.

On Sunday we saw a few pairs at fairly close range, small groups in the medium distance and larger gatherings at a remove that required binoculars for a good look. Three or four times we saw them take flight with a great, ungainly flapping that shifts suddenly to soaring grace and the distinctive rhythm that emphasizes a quick, upward flip of the wingtip.

Photo by Leighton Siegel
At Crex, the sandhills were the stars.

Almost always their music was in the breeze, that peculiar amplified trill they produce by means of a 48-inch windpipe, of which 23 inches is in the neck and the other 25 in a series of loops along the sternum.

In “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold described it thus:

Out of some far recess of the sky a tinkling of little bells falls soft upon the listening land. Then again silence. Now comes a baying of some sweet-throated hound, soon the clamor of a responding back. Then a far clear blast of hunting horns, out of the sky into the fog.

High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog….

You can listen to samples here, but nothing compares to hearing it outdoors on the land.

Vast wetland vistas

Photo by David Rottenberg
The author, left, with Leighton Siegel.

And the land at Crex is especially suited to large-vista birding – wide, open, mostly flat and managed now as wetland habitat for waterfowl and other birds, using the dikes and dams and other infrastructure left over from a early 1900s venture into industrial-scale wiregrass production for carpets and other furnishings.

You can drive the viewing areas on lightly traveled dike roads, most gravel and a few paved, stopping as you please and walking as much or as little as you wish.

Spring is my favorite season there, I suppose, but that may have something to do with bidding goodbye to winter in a place where miles and miles of landscape seem to be greening and budding and blooming in one great rush of growth so intense that it, too, seems audible when the cranes fall silent.

But autumn and especially October run a very close second, with the grasses and sedges going gold and the breezes carrying little cloudlets of cattail and milkweed fluff.

More than 70 bird species are on the list of recent sightings posted by the Crex crew on Monday, and a fellow staffing the visitor center said there have been recent sightings of wolves and fishers as well.

As always during the hunting seasons, visitors are advised to wear blaze orange and our party did so on Sunday, just to be able to put the matter out of mind.

I’ve yet to have an experience at Crex that approached concern about conflict with hunters, and in four hours there on Sunday (followed by two more at the nearby Fish Lake Wildlife Area), I heard but two shots, both distant.

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