A Red-letter Day

Tuesday, March 26, 2024 is a day I’ll remember for a long time!  For on that day, I checked off one of the items I’ve aspired to on my personal birding bucket list: seeing and photographing a Whooping Crane!  I had seen a Whooping Crane flying with a flock of Sandhills back in March of 2021 at, of all places, the Jewel parking lot at the corner of IL Route 47 and Galena Blvd. In Sugar Grove.  I took a quick, terrible cellphone picture of this bird but it was basically unusable.  Since that day, I have been on a quest to photograph a Whooping Crane in northern Illinois.  I finally achieved my goal. 

A pair of Whooping Cranes at the Nachusa Grasslands, March 26, 2024. These are two of 72 (an updated number form the ICF) birds east of the Mississippi River in the entire United States!

Back in early November of 2023, I received a text from a good friend early one morning that three Whooping Cranes had been spotted in the Muirfield Springs Forest Preserve east of IL Route 47 in Hampshire, Illinois.  I had to work that morning but had just enough time to drive up to Muirfield, get my pictures, and head into my work meeting.  When, I arrived, I encountered a friendly forest preserve police officer who asked if I was there for the cranes.  I replied that I was and he sadly informed me that they had left ten minutes prior to my arrival.  So close, but yet so far!

A Rare Bird Indeed!

You might ask, what is the big deal about seeing and photographing a Whooping Crane?  The answer for me is simple: they are incredibly rare.  According to a January, 2024 report from the International Crane Foundation, there are only 702 Whooping Cranes living in the wild anywhere in the world.  Out of those, only 75 individuals are part of the Eastern Migratory flock east of the Mississippi River in the United States.  Contrast that with the over 100,000 Sandhill Cranes living east of the Mississippi River!  So, when I saw two Whooping Cranes reported at the Nachusa Grasslands (one of the first conservation herds of bison in Illinois was introduced at Nachusa in 2014 as an integral part of the restoration process) near Franklin Grove, Illinois on the eBird Illinois Rare Bird Alert I decided to take a chance on the hour drive from my home that they might still be there the next day.  The birds were reported at Nachusa on March 25, a cold, windy, and rainy day.  The night of the 25th and the morning of the 26th were even windier and rainier.  I figured that the chances were pretty good that the two cranes would not try to continue their northward migration into the face of a strong, rain-filled northwest wind.  So, I hit the road!

The Trek Pays Off!

On the drive out, as I passed through torrential rains and car-buffeting winds, I thought to myself “You’re crazy for going out in this weather!”  That thought was definitely valid, but the conditions also convinced me that there was a good chance that the cranes would still be grounded at the Grasslands.  As I got within five miles of my destination, the rains stopped but the winds continued to howl.  The Nachusa Grasslands are out in the country northwest of the little town of Franklin Grove, Illinois.  The preserve, established by The Nature Conservancy in 1986, consists of 4000 acres of restored prairie, it is only accessible by quiet country roads.  Home to over 180 species of birds and more than 700 species of native plants, the Nachusa Grasslands are an attractive destination for me at any time!  The prospect of the presence of Whooping Cranes made it all the more exciting!

When I turned into the parking lot for the visitor center, my heart sank as there was only one other car there.  I thought there would be many more people there if the cranes were still present.  Then I noticed a gentleman on top of the ridge near the pavilion with a spotting scope trained on the northwestern part of the preserve.  As I approached him, I called out “Are they still here?” and his affirmative response really made my day!  He offered me a look at the two Whooping Cranes through his scope and, sure enough, there they were. 

Foraging in the Prairie Near the Restored Wetland

The two Whooping Cranes were foraging in the wetland about 700 yards from the pavilion with two Sandhill Cranes. 

Two Whooping Cranes and two Sandhill Cranes forage in a wetland in the Nachusa Grasslands.

The Whooping Cranes brilliant white plumage stood out against still brown foliage of the wetland where the two Sandhill Cranes blended in better with the background.  The Whooping Cranes are significantly larger than their Sandhill Cousins, standing up to five feet tall with a wingspan of between seven and eight feet, and weighing up to seventeen pounds.  Due to habitat loss (wetland depletion) and rampant hunting for their meat and feathers, an estimated original population of more than 1500 birds in North America dwindled to only twenty individuals by 1941.  The species teetered on the brink of extinction for many years and only recently has begun a recovery due to the efforts of a number of conservation groups including the International Crane Foundation who began a captive breeding program in the late 1980’s.  The results of that program are paying off as the cranes’ numbers are slowly increasing.

Meet “Queso” and the Unknown Wild-hatched Crane!

I took over 500 pictures of the Whooping Cranes, but the combination of extreme distance from me and the poor lighting conditions made getting good photographs extremely difficult.  I did get several pictures that showed that one of the birds was banded with color-coded rings placed on his legs and the other bird was unbanded.  When I returned home, I made a sighting report including the pictures of the birds to the International Crane Foundation (ICF).  Within fifteen minutes of my report, I received a response from the ICF, confirming that the banded bird was Whooping Crane 25_10 named “Queso” who was a male bird that had hatched at the ICF facility on June 13, 2010!  The cranes he was with was believed to be W23-23, a wild-hatched bird from the 2023-year class!  They also sent a biography of Queso to me detailing his travels, the other cranes he was known to associate with, and his sightings over the last 13 years!  They apologized that they didn’t have enough information on the young wild-hatched bird, one of only 16 individuals believed to have been hatched in the wild over the last twenty years! 

Whooping Crane 25_10 “Queso” on the right with Whooping Crane W13_23, a wild-hatched bird to the left. Queso was hatched in 2010 and W13_23 hatched last year.

Importance of Wetland Restoration

It is heartening to know that these magnificent creatures are being helped by conservation organizations like the International Crane Foundation.  It is also extremely gratifying to know that organizations like The Nature Conservancy are actively restoring wetlands to benefit all kinds of native species including the Whooping Crane.  It also makes me proud to be affiliated with an organization like Friends of the Fox River who supports aquatic restoration on the Fox River itself and wetlands within its watershed.  The occasional appearance of the rare Whooping Cranes in the Fox River watershed validates the good work that FOTFR and other organizations are doing to restore native habitat and natural conditions.  Without these efforts, the Whooping Crane might well have gone extinct entirely.

Two magnificent Whooping Cranes in flight over the wetlands at the Nachusa Grasslands. March 26, 2024.
The two Whooping Cranes continue their short flight from the wetland to an upland area in the Nachusa Grasslands

So, when you’re out and about, particularly during the spring and fall migration periods, and you hear the distinctive call of a flock of Sandhill Cranes overhead, look up!  You might be treated to the sight of a rare Whooping Crane mingled in with the flock of beautiful Sandhills.  Until next time, keep on Fixin’ the Fox and enjoying the wonderful natural wonders of the beautiful Fox River watershed!

The two beautiful Whooping Cranes set their wings as they begin their approach to a landing in the Nachusa Grasslands. The ability to see these wonderful birds was made possible only through the dedicated efforts of many conservation organizations that aided in the breeding of the birds and the restoration of their habitat. We are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to see them close to and in the Fox River watershed.
It truly was a Red-letter Day!