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By dawn's early light

It was pitch dark and only 28 degrees at 5:30 a.m. Saturday when Keith Bennett took up his annual post at the Cylon marsh to listen for and count sandhill cranes.

In a two-hour period, the River Falls resident traveled to five different one-square-mile sites looking and listening for cranes in the Cylon Wildlife Area, which is about three miles northeast of Deer Park.

Elsewhere Saturday morning in St. Croix County, about 14 other volunteers were similarly staked out in marshy sites hoping to glimpse or at least hear the elusive cranes.

Bennett finds nature "fascinating" and volunteered to help with the Midwest Crane Count about 10 years ago. The annual count is sponsored by the International Crane Foundation (ICF).

ICF, located in Baraboo, Wis., keeps track of every variety of crane and helps propagate endangered crane populations such as the whooping crane.

"I've always been interested in nature and nature photography," Bennett said. "I got word of the volunteer crane count program, stuck my neck out and got involved."

The lure of nature

Now, as St. Croix County's coordinator for the Midwest Crane Count, Bennett not only mans his marshy post, he also recruits volunteers, compiles all the data collected in the county and sends it to Baraboo.

It's not easy to find people willing to trade their cozy beds for a spot in a swamp at 5:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m. on any given Saturday, but Bennett is pretty persuasive.

"We have to be out there early to listen for their (cranes') calls before the cranes start moving around," Bennett said, "so they are only counted once."

Sandhills weren't the only thing Bennett experienced on his early morning trek, which is another reason he looks forward to his yearly tradition.

On this particular Saturday, Bennett saw 13 trumpeter swans; 11 he saw in flight and two he spotted in the water.

He also saw kestrels, red-winged blackbirds, a bald eagle, gaggles of noisy Canadian geese, a flock of about seven wild turkeys crossing the road, five deer, a loon, many ducks including mallards, buffleheads and ringnecks, mourning doves, a blue-jay, tree sparrows, robins, juncos, a bluebird, a northern harrier, grackle and he heard the call of a snipe (yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as a snipe).

Bennett likens the lives of the birds he loves to his own life now.

"These birds have got no place to go and all day to get there," Bennett said. "It's a lot like being retired."

Call of the crane

There are two distinct calls to be heard from sandhill cranes. The first is a one-note call, indicating the crane is a lone male. The second call is a "unison call," which indicates a mating pair.

The unison call is a two-note call, then the one-note, followed by another two-note call. To the untrained ear, the unison call can sound like a lone bird making a more intricate call. Crane calls can be heard for quite a distance.

The unison call is sometimes accompanied by a pair bonding dance, where the couple move their long necks gracefully up and down and hop from one long leg to the other.

The sandhill crane count is done the same time each year, explained Bennett, because the migrating birds have already moved through.

"The birds that are still here now, will stay all summer," Bennett said.

"There are three types of sandhill cranes," Bennett explained. "The ones around here are called the greater sandhills because they are bigger and darker in color than the lesser sandhills, which are mostly in Nebraska or the Mississippi sandhills, which are currently endangered."

The cranes, averaging four feet tall at adulthood, begin arriving in Wisconsin from their winter homes in Florida during February and March each year.

When the cranes arrive, they "stain their feathers with mud," Bennett said, "to better camouflage themselves from their predators, which are mainly fox and coyotes."

The cranes are usually grey, but appear brown after smearing themselves with mud and are difficult to discern in their wetland environment.

Sandhills mate for life and the couple will return each spring to the same nesting area to establish their breeding ground.

"The pair work together to build the nest and share the responsibility of the 30-day incubation of usually two eggs," Bennett said.

The leggy birds spend their first year together as a family and migrate south in the fall. When the family returns to their breeding ground in the spring, it's time for the youngsters to move out.

"Then the pair kick the kids out of the nest and chase them from their birth territory," Bennett said. "This cuts down on the odds that siblings will mate."

The birds roost in shallow water, as they do not swim. They feed on snails, tubers and grain from nearby farms.

Why count cranes?

Volunteers across the Midwest have been counting cranes each April since 1976 to provide biologists information that helps them track the area's sandhill crane population, which was considered threatened only a few decades ago.

Recent surveys by the ICF indicate that more than 13,000 sandhill cranes have been counted by a volunteer base of about 3,000 people.

By counting the cranes yearly, biologists can keep track of where they are living, how many have moved into new nesting areas or how many have abandoned their old nest sites due to ever-encroaching development, according to Bennett.

It is important to keep track of the sandhill cranes and their habitat as development around wetlands continues at a rapid pace, according to ICF.

The stabilization of the crane population is one indicator of the health of wetlands, which help prevent flooding by acting as giant sponges to more slowly release water from accumulated rainfall and snowmelt.

Wetlands also help keep lakes and streams clean by removing pollutants and sediment from the water cycle.

The world's wetlands are important habitat for many creatures, yet they have been in decline for many years.

Since the 1800s, nearly half of the wetlands in the contiguous U.S. have been destroyed, and approximately 300,000 additional acres are lost every year.

Heeding the call

This year was a successful count for the county, according to Bennett.

If you are interested in participating in next year's count, or learning more about sandhill cranes or their habitat, contact Keith Bennett at 425-6405.