The fog hangs evenly in the morning twilight as I make my way across the soggy soil. Steam from standing pools of water rises in the cold air in undulating waves, then disappears into the haze as it cools. I hear the winnowing of a Wilson’s snipe and look skyward. To my amazement, my eyes find the bird, perhaps flying low due to the soupy conditions. Over and over, I watch the snipe silently climb into the sky, followed immediately by a dive with the accompanied winnowing sound produced from its fanned tail feathers. A deafening trumpeting sound rolls over me, and I spin around to face the direction of its source. I see two towering forms just beyond a pool of water. The rising steam obscures their appearance giving them a haunting look. Guardians of the marsh, I think, sentries from another time.
I heed the warning of the two sandhill cranes and correct my course of travel away from them. It could have been very different, I think. These birds are not ghosts or creatures known only from historical accounts. They are real. Here today for me to celebrate because of the conservation efforts of others before me.
In 1916, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act halted market hunting of migratory birds, including the sandhill crane. Over time, wetland conservation efforts created more habitat for sandhill cranes and many other species. According to the Wisconsin DNR, the greater sandhill crane likely reached its lowest population levels in the 1930s, with a conservative estimated low point of about 25 nesting pairs.
Today, the greater sandhill crane is a common sight in many areas of Wisconsin. This powerful and stately bird stirs strong emotions in nature enthusiasts of all backgrounds. The sandhill crane is well represented in the writings of Aldo Leopold and vigorously supported by the conservation efforts of the International Crane Foundation located outside of Baraboo, Wis. Conservation challenges continue, of course, highlighted with Wisconsin’s current struggle in determining how much of our land we are willing to share with the cranes.
I look back at the two cranes standing in what must have been one of their historical breeding grounds. In fact, the 1833 original survey records show a hand drawn map identifying this area as a marsh. All of the original marsh was lost to agriculture, but a tiny portion - the portion the cranes are standing in now - was reconstructed in a labor of love, faith and hope.
I‘m thankful to those who long ago felt I deserved to hear the trumpet of the sandhill crane. I’m committed to pass that good will on to others after me with the good stewardship of the land I care for today.