It has been a month since I visited the International Crane Foundation outside Baraboo, Wisconsin. You can see each of the 15 species of cranes of the world, many of which are endangered due to loss of wetland habitat. I had been there once before as a uninterested, reluctant child, brought by her bird-loving mother. This time I was the one who instigated the outing, and I had no difficulty convincing my mom to come with.
To prepare for my visit, I had started reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Birds of Heaven. What a disappointment! I just couldn’t warm up to his style and got impatient with his lengthy descriptions of the logistics of ornithologists traveling in Russia just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. When oh when would the narrator retreat into the background and start describing nature’s jewel of a bird? I set the book aside and decided I would learn by simply observing the birds myself. Facts could be gathered from other sources later.
The majority of cranes have red, white, and black plumage. There is something archaic in their eyes that hints at their incredibly long history. Sandhill crane fossils have been found dating back to 3 to 5 million years ago. Their sleek aerodynamic shape has stood the test of time. The ICF is designed so that you can often stand eye to eye with these creatures that are associated with longevity and good luck in Japan, Korea, and China.
The two species that sport no red feathers are the blue crane (Grus paradisea), the national bird of South Africa and shown above, and the demoiselle crane (Grus virgo), named by Marie Antoinette and shown below. The elegant demoiselles do have red eyes – maybe from getting up really early to traverse the Himalayas when they migrate.
The whooping crane couple (Grus americana) have a huge area all to themselves. Visitors enter what feels like a Roman amphitheater, walking down to sit in one of the rows of seats that are at the level of a waterhole.
You can sit there as long as you like, watching the birds preen in the water or hang out on the berm.
If you are lucky like I was, you may even see a crane dance.
Sadly, it is not just students who are continually victims of gun violence in the U.S.; despite their endangered species status, one in five whooping cranes is shot.
The next time I visit the cranes, I will be sure to allow more time to walk the four miles of nature trails and to visit conservationist Aldo Leopold‘s shack and farm.
On the way back from Baraboo the next day, my party had intended to stroll along a trail or two at Horicon Marsh, one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands and the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States: a birdwatcher’s paradise. The marsh is a national wildlife refuge with a rocky past. Unfortunately, heavy rain arrived about twenty minutes after we did. The silver lining: besides some low flying Canada geese, I spied a few pelicans on the water. And nothing beats hearing the wind in the reeds and experiencing a storm roll in.
The crane’s legs have gotten shorter in the spring rain. – Basho
Happy birdwatching wherever you are!