CraneFest: Michigan birders celebrate thousands of migrating sandhill cranes
Francie Krawcke and Sarah Gilmore are environmental educators with the Michigan Avian Experience. But if you closed your eyes to listen to them on a recent weekend, they could be two caterwauling owls.
They hoot and whistle back and forth to each other in a convincing demonstration of owl calls at Michigan's 28th annual CraneFest in Bellevue. The festival, put on by the Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek, celebrates the annual southward migration of sandhill cranes as they gather by the thousands at Big Marsh Lake. While the cranes are the main attraction, other birds receive attention, too.
Krawcke introduces the crowd to a captive red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, and great-horned owl, explaining the birds' life histories and ecological roles. All of the birds have suffered injuries that left them unfit to live in the wild, but they serve as ambassadors for their species with Krawcke. Onlookers are especially captivated by the owl, which seems to be equally interested in the cameras.
Birders are drawn to CraneFest for the cranes, Krawcke and Gilmore's raptor presentations, the plethora of other bird species that can be seen and heard along the lake edge, and the bird-themed crafts and activities. The maple kettle corn is popular, too.
Around dusk, the rattling, jurassic calls of the cranes intensify as groups start arriving to the lake from nearby agricultural fields. Krawcke explains that the birds' physiology results in their distinct call: "Their trachea actually wraps up and down in their chest, so when they call, it reverberates in their chest. That's why they're so loud."
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sandhill crane calls can be heard up to 2 1/2 miles away from the birds. When large numbers of them are close together and low to the ground — like at CraneFest — their chorus is deafening.
"Here comes a big group!" a birder announces as a V-formation of nine cranes grows larger over the lake.
Sandhill cranes were nearly wiped out in Michigan 100 years ago due to overhunting, according to the Michigan Audubon. Populations have rebounded and are stable now in the state.
The group says the cranes are the largest bird species in Michigan, with a wingspan of up to six feet. At this time of year, in mid-autumn they have light gray and white plumage with a crimson cap, and stand elegantly on 2- to 3-foot legs. The early-20th-century naturalist Aldo Leopold described them as "nobility, won in the march of eons." They are the oldest living species of bird.
Gilmore says people flock to watch the migration because the cranes are unique:
"Sandhill cranes are really animated birds, so not only are they just big birds, but they do big movements, and they have this huge big call. ... You're just kind of drawn to them."
"They're special. They're beautiful," Krawcke adds.
Three large groups of cranes land together in sync, and the crowd cheers and applauds almost as loudly as the ancient, guttural crane calls overhead.