The volunteers – about 2,000 expected across the Upper Midwest – are ready. They’ve met with their county’s Crane Count coordinators to review the basics of visually identifying cranes, and how to identify them by sound as well. They’ve received maps of their counties, and the individual sites they will monitor, and Saturday morning, from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. the 39th Annual Midwest Crane Count will once again take to the fields and wetlands of Wisconsin, and nearly 200 sites in adjacent states, to report back to us on the status of the plentiful sandhill crane species in our midst.
No doubt, many of the reports will echo the scenario that is found in Wisconsin’s Brown County. I talked with Mark Payne, a park ranger at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, who has served as Brown County’s Midwest Crane Count Coordinator since 1997. When he was new on the job he remembers the annual count yielding about a dozen sandhill cranes, predictably, every year.
But that number began to climb, he said, often by big leaps, beginning in 2000. That year 70 sandhill cranes were counted in Brown County. In 2009 the count was up to 286 cranes, and 324 were recorded last year. Interestingly, Mark also dug out some historical data – Brown County first joined the crane count in 1981, before his time on the job. That first year only 4 sandhill cranes were counted here, said Mark.
Last week, Mark met with the group of observers that he coordinates; about 60 to 70% of the group are repeat crane counters, he estimated, so it’s an easy orientation session. They will be monitoring at 40 sites in Brown County. He said they are encouraged to get familiar with their sites beforehand, in daylight (some individuals will monitor more than one) so they know, when they arrive in the dark at 5:30 Saturday morning, where the best observation points are. “Generally they look for a hill or a high spot where they can pull off the road and get out of their car to observe.”
The Crane Count tradition began in 1976 on a small-scale when the then 5-year old International Crane Foundation decided to survey Columbia County (to the east of Baraboo where ICF is located) in search of sandhill crane activity, and to study their ecology. Two years later Crane Count covered 5 Wisconsin counties, and in 1981 it partnered with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and expanded widely through the state.
According the ICF, “The hopes of expanding Crane Count were to enhance wetland protection (Wisconsin currently retains about half of its historic wetlands) by promoting awareness, document areas where cranes were known to occur, and begin documenting the size of the crane population.” In 1994 it expanded into Minnesota and Michigan, and soon after into Illinois, then Iowa, officially becoming the Annual Midwest Sandhill Crane Count. In 2011 Indiana was added to the list.
Every year since 2000 at least 10,000 sandhill cranes, and often more, have been counted. “People know more about them, and seem to care more about the cranes now,” said Mark Payne. “I see more interest in helping to preserve habitat and wetlands.”