September 30, 2008

Crane Crossing Whooping Cranes Make Historic Layover at Middlefork Savanna

By Mick Zawislak

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Three whooping cranes spent a recent weekend at the Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve, making history in Lake County as well as a case for habitat restoration.

Standing 5 feet with a 7- to 8-foot wingspan, the whooping cranes were taller than deer browsing nearby. Snow white except for markings on their wings tips and bill, they are the tallest flying bird in North America.

"It's really unique to have that species stop in a (forest) preserve, "said Jim Anderson, natural resource manager. "That's the first occurrence of that species in this county."

The birds were heading north, most likely from Florida, on their way to Canada. They arrived Friday, April 11 and left either Sunday night or early Monday. They were first identified by bird watchers Saturday afternoon, prompting the district to close the preserve Sunday.

With its mix of a rare tallgrass savanna, woodlands, prairies, meadows and marshes, Middlefork near Lake Forest is considered a suitable resting spot for migratory birds, though that may not be the only reason the whooping cranes took a break there.

"Part of it is this is a good, suitable habitat. Part of it is chance," Anderson said. Whooping cranes also have landed in Glacial Park in McHenry County.

A favorable wind and the fact the whooping cranes were traveling with sandhill cranes may also have been a factor, he said.

The cranes were banded and one was fitted with a radio tracking system from the International Crane Foundation, which confirmed the sighting.

The foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to restore the population of whooping cranes in North America.

Middlefork was once part of a large, glacial lake and includes several wetlands that feed into the North Branch of the Chicago River. Its 576 acres were acquired in chunks by the district in 1989 and 2000. A 25-acre potion is considered the highest quality tall grass savanna of its kind in the nation.

Formerly a gentleman farm, the district has taken several steps to restore the area. A prairie has been re-established; native trees and shrubs planted; and five to six miles of drain tiles removed to restore wetlands.

As a result, Middlefork supports a number of uncommon birds, butterflies and other species that require large open areas. It serves as a national ecological research site and as an outdoor classroom for schools and other organizations.

Birds are pretty easy to attract and the concentration will shift to amphibians, reptiles and insects, Anderson said.

"We've had almost 250 years of disturbance. We certainly can't turn the clock back in five or 10 years."

Facts about whooping cranes

- They're the tallest flying North American bird.

- Whooping crane chicks are one of two species born with blue eyes that later turn yellow.

- As of 2006, only 470 of these birds are left in the United States, 336 of them in the wild. The rest are in captivity.

- There's good news; the numbers are rising. Only 29 cranes were counted in the wild in 1938.

- You can learn more about cranes by visiting the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. It offers 1 1/2 to 2-hour tours of the facility, home to 15 different species of cranes.

Source: International Crane Foundation,

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