MINNEAPOLIS — From all reports, American golden plover and other shorebirds have enjoyed the mudflats.
All manner of ducks have stopped, from American blacks to widgeon to green- and blue-winged teal. Even a northern shoveler.
But the visitors that have become synonymous with October in the marshes and prairie of Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Grantsburg, Wis., now are the commanding view.
Uncommonly long and tall and strikingly loud with their rattling calls, sandhill cranes swarm Crex (and nearby Fish Lake and Amsterdam Slough wildlife areas) as a stopover to rest and feed on their migratory journey to winter in the southern United States. By late October and early November, as many as 20,000 can be expected to roost at Crex morning and night before day trips to nearby cropland to eat what grain scraps they can find.
"Our crane numbers are building," said Lauren Finch, Crex Meadows' wildlife educator.
Finch added that some could disperse more than in recent years because of the severe summer drought. Water levels still are lower than usual around Crex's 30,000 acres despite recent rain.
The cranes represent almost one-quarter of the North American greater sandhill crane population — one of the two migratory sandhill subspecies whose broad breeding range includes the northern United States, Canada and even parts of eastern Siberia. The other, lesser sandhills, are more abundant and have the same cinnamon-gray coloring and distinctive red head patch, but they are noticeably smaller in size. Greater sandhills can grow to as tall as 5 feet and as heavy as 14 pounds, while lessers are smaller by about half.
Minnesota manages a special annual fall hunt of sandhill cranes in the northwestern corner of the state. This year's hunt began Sept. 18 and ends Oct. 24. More than 80% of the sandhill population uses the Central Flyway, which includes part of Canada, that pocket of Minnesota, and much of the Plains states. Sandhills in the flyway famously stage out on the Platte River in Nebraska by the hundreds of thousands during their migration to Texas, New Mexico and other points south.
During Minnesota's 2020-21 hunt, 472 were harvested, an increase of 164% from the previous year. The state issued more permits in advance of it, likely owing to an increased bag limit to two per day, said Steve Cordts, a Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist. He said the COVID-19 pandemic also increased license sales, a trend that's continued this season.
The sandhill cranes at Crex and in parts of central and eastern Minnesota are part of the Eastern population, which migrate to Florida and other Gulf areas. Those in far northwest Minnesota are members of the Mid-Continent group, following the Central Flyway. Both are healthy, Cordts said.
"They are doing well and expanding [their range] and increasing," he added.