At 5:45 a.m., standing in the snow at the edge of a frozen lake, my toes slowly going numb under two layers of socks, I heard it. Compared to the familiar early morning chatter of birds greeting the sunrise, this sound, rising out of the frozen cattails, seemed prehistoric. Something you might hear in a Jurassic Park movie. A shrill, warbling, two-note trumpet.
I’d planned a short trip to visit friends in Madison, Wisconsin, in early April a year ago. What I didn’t know was that my timing – Saturday, April 9, 2022 – happened to overlap with an annual event that couldn’t be rescheduled. That’s how I ended up stepping through a tangle of dogwood over a frozen lake at 5 in the morning, a flashlight in one hand and a birding notebook in the other.
“Is this still going to be frozen when we walk back?” I asked.
“Let’s say ‘yes,’” said one of my companions.
I’d arrived just in time for the annual Midwest Crane Count.
My fellow birders and I were some of more than 1,600 volunteers who travel each spring from all over the Midwest to their local birding hotspots, hunker down in the cold, and record the number of sandhill cranes they see gliding over the wetlands. These birds are hard to miss. They’re around four feet tall with a five-foot wingspan. And they’re weird-looking. Long beaks and necks, a splash of red on their forehead, and spindly legs like a velociraptor. But you’ll hear their eerie, distinctive bugle call before you see them.
The sound of this call is indicative of one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. In 1937, Aldo Leopold wrote in A Marshland Elegy that there would come a day when “the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh.” At the time, only two dozen pairs of sandhill cranes lived in Wisconsin, one of the most important hotspots in the country for crane migration and breeding. Today, that number is closer to 90,000 sandhill cranes all over the upper Midwest, according to the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
This comeback is thanks in large part to habitat preservation, with programs like the Wetland Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, along with protective policies building on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
So where does the counting come in? People have been informally counting cranes in Wisconsin since the 1970s, but programs like the ICF helped organize and systematize the efforts. Participants can now register for specific spots of land where cranes may be abundant, like wetlands and marshes. Just before sunrise on a Saturday morning — this year’s count is Saturday, April 15, 2023 — volunteers trek to their sites in the dark to record the sounds and sights of migrating cranes. The data from these separate locations combine to form a more complete view of crane populations across the Midwest, which helps researchers determine how well conservation efforts are working. It’s citizen science at its finest.
But there is a less quantitative importance to the crane count as well. Paul Robbins, a board member of the ICF, said in an interview with A Public Affair, “I don’t call myself a birder. But once you run into a five-foot-tall bird walking around, flying, soaring with their very unique flight method, that is super cool. You won’t look back. The ‘gateway drug’ into conservation in this part of the country is the sandhill crane, without question.”
The value of something like the Midwest Crane Count goes beyond numbers, hitting one of the foundational tenets of environmental advocacy: to truly understand something’s importance, you have to see it for yourself.
From my own experience, the crane count’s value goes even further than that. The night before, I found myself at a dining table with a group of amateur birders who had driven from cities across the Midwest – Chicago, Madison, Detroit – to this little house in the country. They brought their kids. They greeted one another with hugs and “how are things?” as they stretched after long drives. We participated in a classic Midwest tradition, the Friday fish fry, retelling stories of old crane counts over tartar sauce and vinegar. We went to bed early. We woke at 4, bundled, grabbed our notebooks, our flashlights, and trekked into the early morning dark, winding our way over a precariously frozen path to an island where we would sit together with steaming thermoses of coffee and scour the skies for cranes. They do this every year.
This is the real stuff of conservation. Connection to place, connection to people. Stepping out of the city and into local biomes. Sharing that experience with others. Seeing it for yourself.
And we did see them. Twenty-nine cranes in total, plus a turkey vulture, swans, pelicans, ducks, redwing blackbirds, geese, and one bald eagle. Just as we were about to leave, with the sun turning the marshland as red as the dogwood, a crane sliced silently through the air mere feet from us, near enough to be alarming. This close, it seemed impossibly large, odd and lanky, and somehow effortlessly elegant too. The sight was eerie, otherworldly, electric. Descriptions and photos don’t do it justice.
About a month after our crane count, as my toes were finally beginning to thaw, I received a book in the mail from one of the birders I’d met – H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – to encourage the next steps of my amateur birding addiction. On the inside of the front cover, he’d inscribed, Graham, It was a pleasure meeting you. Please come back next year and become a permanent member of the team. Crane counting is one of the sweeter things in life.
See for yourself. This year’s crane count is scheduled for Saturday, April 15, 5:30 – 7:30 a.m. CT.