The Visitor Center at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was pretty quiet when we parked the Airstream Friday afternoon. Signs were going up for the Crane Weekend starting next morning, papers were being shuffled, volunteers arriving.
As usual, there were just a few of us, all with binoculars strapped on. Out the path to the comfy two story glass-walled Observatory, high walls screen the view, but the cacophony of calls from the assembled masses of Sandhill Cranes was building and flocks of 6-10 were above us calling. It is hard to exaggerate the noise of 10 or 12 THOUSAND cranes, each loud enough to be heard 2 1/2 miles away. Cornell calls it a rattling bugle. The Whooping Cranes are almost pleasant by comparison.
The view from the observatory is breathtaking. The pond in the foreground hosts hundreds of ducks of many varieties, huge flocks of Snow Geese are feeding way off to the left by the tree line and all across the acres of cut corn in the mid distance are thousands of Sandhill Cranes in full voice. Every so often a Bald Eagle makes a pass and stirs everybody up; a few deer will show themselves along the treeline. Way out there is a white dot of a Whooping Crane, another closer to the right.
SEE VIDEO from this time last year
We set up camp at the Joe Wheeler State Park FIFTY miles away. (Planning was a little scant on this venture). We were in storage with a winterized empty trailer two days before launch; all preparations went well except for this tiny planning error that had us up really early to travel back and watch the empty field fill with cranes.
There are about 20 Whooping Cranes at Wheeler this year thanks to the efforts of Operation Migration which over twelve years led small groups of newly hatched cranes toward Florida following behind ultralight airplanes.
They established a new flyway which now hosts 100 birds. There are fewer than 400 Whoopers now, back from lows in the teens. So it is with a bit of a smirk that we report that 13 of these treasures were hanging out off-refuge by the ball fields near Chaz's fuel stop.
Visit the refuge nearly any day between Thanksgiving and Valentines Day and you will find friendly volunteer hosts, just a small number of like-minded visitors and the same cast of thousands. On Festival weekend, expect lots of folks from little guys enrolled in children's workshops, storytellers, songwriters and the Auburn Raptor Center folks with 6-8 of their feathered friends, bird enthusiasts of all ages, guys with camera lenses the length of your leg and ladies on walkers with iPhones and big smiles.
As we report often, it will be the stories we heard from our fellow visitors that will remain with us. We totally loved Brian "Fox" Ellis as John James Audubon and Meriwether Lewis; we offered to follow him around as groupies to hear the rest of the 30+ historical characters he portrays. (He's getting back to us on that.)
Patty wore her Give a Whoop T shirt all around town in the evenings and marveled at the local pride in the refuge and perhaps encouraged a few more to visit and support our Nineteen Thousand friends.