DNR Educator Highlights Crane Migration At Sandhill Wildlife Area

By Joel Waldinger | September 29, 2016


In the backwoods of central Wisconsin, Britt Searles is in her environment and has an eagle eye for spotting wildlife under the forest canopy.

Searles is a teacher by training and was working at a school with a heavy environmental focus when a move brought her to the Sandhill Wildlife Area.  The state-owned wildlife area was looking for an educator with a teaching background and Searles fit the bill.

“I’ve always had an interest in wildlife, so I went from middle school kids to wildlife, which was not a big jump,” Searles said.

As a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Educator, her classroom encompasses more than 9,000 acres at the Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock in southern Wood County.

“It was started in the 30s as a game farm by a man named Wallace Grange and he was a conservationist. He was really interested in wildlife management which was kind of a new thing,” Searles said.

In 1961, Grange decided to sell the property to the state and encouraged the new owners to maintain it as an education and research facility. In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were less than 30 nesting pairs in the entire state. The cranes had been hunted to near extinction and it had really hurt the breeding population.

Consider that when looking at the fall migration today and it is even more amazing. Searles gets to witness an ancient migration that has been repeated year after year through the millennia, and there’s no other place like it in Wisconsin.

“We’ll see thousands of cranes tonight. So a huge difference between the populations then and now. It’s quite an experience, the sound and the sight is pretty amazing.  And it’s right in our backyard. I think a lot of people don’t realize that we have a staging area right here with these huge numbers of birds coming in,” Searles said.

Wisconsin is home to two types of cranes, the common one is the Sandhill Crane and the more rare variety is the Whooping Crane. During migration season bird watchers come to tour the marsh, hunker down in the tall grass and wait, searching the autumn sky for the Sandhill Cranes that are flying south on a wing and a prayer.

The Sandhill Cranes will follow the Eastern flyway, which includes the Great Lakes Region. They start arriving in late September and continue to fly to the marsh during October and November.

The Gallagher Marsh is about 3,000 acres and serves as a big chunk of wetlands that the birds can hang out in as a staging area for their journey south. They gather in the middle of the marsh where there is water all around them like a moat. There is safety in numbers that helps them evade predators.

The comeback of the Sandhill Crane is an environmental success story.

“It’s just an amazing sight. It’s nothing that I knew happened here,” Searles said. “I didn’t realize that you could see something so amazing right here in central Wisconsin, and it’s a little overwhelming. It’s beautiful. I think that’s the purpose of these places, and the purpose of education.”

Traits of Sandhill Cranes

DNR Educator Britt Searles explains how you count Sandhill Cranes as they fly in by the thousands and why counting is an important aspect of conservation.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

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