I arrived in the dark rain at 5:15am to meet the local coordinator for the annual midwest spring survey of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. He was there to unlock the gate and let me into this state park that doesn’t open until dawn. When I volunteered to help with the annual crane census, I pictured a quiet sunrise alone in this patch of wild.
As it was, I sat in my car in the dark rain. No sense heading out on foot yet, I thought. The cranes are unlikely to be making noise before dawn today and unless one walked up to me, I wasn’t going to spot them in these conditions. Briefly, I considered going back home to bed. As I reclined in the car, waiting for dawn’s light, a soft rain continued to fall. But, it was windy. Occasionally, the gusts shook my car. It’s 35 degrees on April 14th! Sunrise is officially at 6:14 today. At 6am, I zipped up my insulated raincoat, stowed my binoculars in an outside pocket, grabbed my camera and headed out on a trail into the preserve.
There are a couple of marshes here, a fen and some tall grass prairie. It’s good Sandhill Crane habitat. I found one here at the last Crane Count. Taking the trail southward, the was wind at my back. I figured the walking would warm me up by the time I had to circle back into the wind. The rain fell on my hood, making a gentle popping noise that reminded me of popcorn in a microwave – a flurry of pops, then a single pop here and there, then a flurry of pops again, as the wind blew the rain around. My face was mostly covered with my neck gaiter pulled up over my nose and my fleece headband covering my forehead to my eyebrows. Now and then the wind would send a raindrop stinging onto my exposed skin.
As I got to the first marsh, I stepped off the trail into the tall grass. I used a large cottonwood tree at the edge of the wetland to obscure my approach. Geese. Mallards. Pintails. Red-winged blackbirds. I scanned the area through the binoculars, looking for the gray, skinny neck of a crane in the reeds. I was at peace in this moment, enjoying just being out here. Even when it’s so early and the weather isn’t ideal, it’s invigorating to be out here.
I hiked around the marsh, through the prairie, on an upland, wildlife path. The soft prints of coyotes were evident in the mud between the grasses. I cautiously focused ahead, wary of disturbing any hunkered-down wildlife on this blustery morning.
Back on the crushed limestone trail, I noticed this small, cold, chorus frog on the path. What is he doing here, out in the cold, so exposed? Being half-paralyzed by the cold, he was inclined to sit still for a picture. I kept my distance, took a couple of quick pictures and moved along to leave him be, for whatever his fate would be.
Despite the rain, the air was full of birdsong. Robins and red-winged blackbirds were out in force, singing their songs of spring. The geese flew honking overhead (in this wind!) and paddled the marshes. I startled a pair of mallards into flight, quacking their displeasure, from a vernal pond the side of the trail. The weather didn’t seem to have dampened the bird activity. If cranes are here, I should find them.
Earthworms were strewn about on the sandy limestone path attracting robins. There’s a lot of debate about what brings out worms like this in the rain. Despite the numbers of robins about, they are notoriously difficult to photograph. So here are just the worms…
Fresh deer tracks in the soft sand criss-cross the path on this side of the preserve.
There are old coyote tracks in the soft sandy trail edge and a well-worn wildlife path in the grass that parallels the maintained trail. Just like the dogs, they prefer the softer grass to the gravel.
The other marsh is empty. It’s more exposed to the wind and the weather. Even with the binoculars, all I can find is a lone male red-winged blackbird high atop a snag.
As I cut through the prairie back toward the footbridge, a marsh hawk is battling into the wind. The characteristic white band on his tail gives away his identity.
As he tries to fly forward, he is just holding his position as his efforts are offset by the headwind. Yet, he is hunting. He banks and allows the wind to sweep him quickly back past me. He swoops forward again and tacks into the wind, eyes to the ground searching for the movement that could signal a meal and disappears into the gray distance.
It’s 7:30am and the count is over. No cranes here today. I’m glad to have participated and contributes to the census. I really enjoyed traipsing around this preserve, observing the awakening of the marsh, the prairie, and its inhabitants, all alone in these quiet, early morning hours.