Counting Cranes

I arrive before dawn on a cold, cloudless morning. As I gear up and start down the crushed limestone trail, the eastern horizon is beginning to lighten. At the footbridge near a beaver lodge, I slow down taking soft, deliberate steps. I think I might see beavers wrapping up the night’s work, but I’m hoping for a mink sighting! The water is flat calm, a perfect mirror – zero activity. As I turn to continue on, movement catches the corner of my eye. I wheeled back around to see the silhouettes of three raccoons. They are crossing a downed tree that bridges an island in the beaver pond to the shore. One is purposeful – crossing the tree bridge directly onto the island. Another stops midway across and stays there, nose down and intent on something I’ll never know. The third one is out and back a few times, the outline of its hulking body arched up on short, thin legs scurrying in the dark. I surmise they are wrapping up their night’s escapades and have a den on this protected little island. I watched a little longer and then moved on. (It’s way too dark for pictures). A pair of mallards swim out from under the far side of the bridge as I pass.

Beaver Dam (left front) and pond viewed from the bridge

I know this place well. This is the third year I’ve come here for the Annual Midwest Crane Count. (Read about last year here). It’s also close enough to home that I’ve walked and biked these trails in daylight many times. As the shades of pink, orange and gold start to lighten the sky, I can see the old cottonwood tree that marks where I will leave the trail. Except for the robin’s enthusiastic, dawn chorus, all is quiet. I move off the path and stand silently in front of brush that helps to obscure my form looking, listening. It’s 5:45 am, thirty minutes before sunrise, but the light from the sun still below the horizon behind me is brightening my view minute by minute. I scan with binoculars. This section of the state park was burned
earlier this spring as part of land management . Last year I could hardly see the open water from here over the thick cattails and bulrush growth. The fire consumed the tops of all the wetland plants, and now I can see almost all of the open water.

There are only a few Canada Geese asleep on nests here and there and a mallard drake resting on high ground. The marsh is surprisingly quiet. It’s migration. Usually, there are blue-wing teal, pintails and buffleheads in among many mallards. I wonder if the marsh is too exposed right now, or if the threat of tomorrow’s snowstorm(!!)has them hunkered down elsewhere.

I followed a well-worn wildlife path to a viewing platform on the other side of the marsh. In years past it was just a view of the tall reeds, rushes and cattails up against it. Even standing on the bench, I wasn’t able to see the water. But now, it is indeed a viewing platform again. I can see all of the geese from here. As it nears sunrise, they are being to stir and call to one another. Suddenly the distinct call of the sora, “a musical series of piping notes rapidly descending the scale” pierces the dawn. It makes my heart sing. I’ve only seen and heard this small marsh bird once before. And then I see him! I study him through my binoculars picking his way along the edge of the marsh in front of the cattails before me! Once satisfied with my encounter, I put down my binoculars, pick up my camera, line up the shot and he turned and meandered back into the vegetation. The memory is captured only in my heart.

Northern Harrier (2018)

A little disappointed in the absence of cranes, I started back the way I came. In the daylight now I can see coyote sign all over the length of the trail. I flushed a Northern Harrier from the ground in the prairie I passed. I wonder if he’s the same one I photographed last year in the rain. Periodically, I stop to glass the prairies and south marsh. Soon I am back at the bridge. Someone has climbed out of the water onto the bridge here in my absence.

The wet prints continue diagonally across the bridge, fading as they go, and dropping off the other side back into the water. The water mark looks like the shape of a body and the foot prints are big (those boards are 10″ wide). There have been more and more reports of otters out this way. What else could it be?? I showed the image to a naturalist who speculated that it was probably an otter, too! Squeee!

I wandered down to the edge of the second marsh to take a quick look before I leave. I haven’t had any luck over here in previous visits. I see some waterfowl – blue-winged teal, bufflehead ducks, geese. Wait. What’s that out in the marsh? I lifted my binoculars quickly to my eyes. A preening sandhill crane!! The geese made a few alarm honks and then settled. The crane kept preening in the early morning light without any concern about me. I watched her and photographed her a bit. I never thought I’d find a crane without following their calls. She was silent. But out in plain sight.

Another successful crane count in the books. Now for some coffee and breakfast!

(The picture at the top of this post is from fall migration at Jasper Pulaski Park in Indiana)

One Reply to “Counting Cranes”

  1. I believe you now qualify as one of the wildlife on the paths yourself after your many trips to this state park. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, adventure and love of this wildlife homeland with us.

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