Each year, volunteers across six states go afield one early spring morning hoping to observe cranes.
The International Crane Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Baraboo, sponsors the annual Midwest Crane Count.
Observers were out from 5:30-7:30 a.m. Saturday, April 12, looking for some sign to report.
With winter reluctant to let go this year, observers found some area spots difficult to access and some that were inaccessible in the north, but the count went on and cranes were seen.
Bob Dall, who, along with his wife Jan has coordinated the Oneida County count since 1991. He said the 2014 count was about normal, though he didn’t have exact numbers yet.
“It’s looking like a pretty normal year as far as the count goes,” Dall said. “We had a number of sites that were inaccessible, of course, because of the snow and ice.”
He said the reports he heard early after the count were “promising.”
“A good number of cranes in the area are already trying to settle into their nest sites, even though they’re snow-covered in a lot of spots,” Dall said.
He expected to know more about actual numbers over the next few days.
The conditions were far from spring-like, but that didn’t stop the volunteers or the cranes.
“It was a good day. We, of course, had rain in the morning. It was cold, about 34 degrees, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the people that were out there. They stuck it out and most of the folks I talked to did hear or see cranes,” Dall said.
There were about 40 volunteers scattered across Oneida County for the early morning vigil, he said.
Theis year’s count looked like it was going to be higher than last year’s, which saw poor weather conditions.
“Last year, we also had some snow conditions that made it difficult for folks to be out there. We also had a lot of wind. Cranes tend to be a little quieter, and take a little more shelter when it’s windy – otherwise, weather doesn’t seem to affect them much.”
Wind also makes it difficult for observers to hear the cranes.
“This kind of a survey is mostly an auditory survey, where you’re listening to their guard calls, their territorial calls or their breeding calls. And on occasion, you get lucky and you see one,” Dall said.
He said a lot of activity from other birds was observed, Including different species of ducks, geese and songbirds such as mourning doves and sparrows.
Dall and his wife had three crane observations from their post on the north end of Nokomis Lake.
“We didn’t see any, but ... we had one pair calling and then an individual,” Dall said.
Cranes prefer wetlands near open areas. It’s the kind of habitat that’s found in broken patches in Oneida County.
Dall cited areas like Starks and the Rainbow Flowage as spots that draw the big birds. They also take to cranberry marshes, he said.
“We’ve always had wonderful cooperation from marsh owners keeping us up to date on crane activities that are going (on) there when we ask for permission to come in. And we’ll have our counters go right to the cranberry bogs and do their counting from there,” Dall said.
The sandhills will soon be nesting.
“Right now they’re pairing up. Of course, they mate for life, but they come back and they go through their mating ritual of crane dancing and crane calling and then very shortly they will be settling into the nests.”
The chicks grow quickly so they are ready to accompany their parents on the migratory flight in September.
The crane count is held this time of year, when migrants are arriving, but just before the nesting period because the cranes become much more secretive once nesting is underway.
While sandhills are much more common, counters have the chance of sighting an endangered whooping crane.
“We have had whooping cranes in our crane count here in Oneida County on a couple of occasions,” Dall said.
“Occasionally an individual or a pair will swing a little bit our way and stop over in the county. Nothing nesting yet or anything, but we can maybe look forward to that one day.”
Last year, volunteers counted 8,728 sandhill cranes and 22 whooping cranes at observation sites in Wisconsin.
Sandhill Cranes experienced severe population declines in the late 1800s to early 1900s in the upper Midwest, but have recovered successfully. Observations of the sandhill cranes can lend insight into other endangered crane species.
Volunteers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana participate in the count.
To learn more about the Midwest Crane Count, visit www.cranecount.org.
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com.