Every October amid fall’s colors, Michigan’s sandhill cranes begin their southerly migration. Flying south from breeding grounds across the Lower and Upper Peninsula, the majestic cranes wing their way to wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. And every year without fail, thousands of them crowd noisily into a small stopover marsh near Battle Creek, where a huge crowd of appreciative onlookers gather to celebrate seeing them and their conservation success.
“The cranes make this incredibly wonderful sound, it’s almost prehistoric,” exclaims Diane Huhn, communications and marketing coordinator for Michigan Audubon, which hosts its annual CraneFest event on the second weekend in October at its Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary, 21145 15 Mile Road, Bellevue. The two-day event draws 4,000 attendees.
This year’s 23rd annual CraneFest is October 14 and 15. It begins at noon and ends about 8 p.m. at the Kiwanis Youth Area of the sanctuary, overlooking Big Marsh Lake. Admission is free, but parking is $5. Those proceeds go to the Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek, Michigan Audubon’s partner for the event.
Between 3,000 and 6,000 sandhill cranes typically stop at Big Marsh Lake each day; observers counted more than 9,400 cranes in October 2015. The cranes arrive throughout the afternoon, but the best viewing time is 5 p.m. until dusk, when great numbers return from feeding in other areas during the daylight hours.
Nearly extinct in Michigan in the 1930s due to habitat destruction and hunting, only 17 pairs remained. Conservation efforts have brought the population back to an estimated 30,000. Standing 5 feet high with a wingspan of about 6 feet, the gray-bodied birds have a crimson cap. With a lifespan of about 20 years, the oldest on record lived to be over 36 years old.
Sandhill cranes engage in a unique courting ritual dance during mating season, bobbing their heads, spreading their wings and leaping into the air. When they do find a mate, they mate for life. They are considered the oldest living bird species, with the earliest sandhill crane fossil found dating 2.5 million years old.
“Seeing the cranes is fabulous, they’re just a super majestic bird,” Huhn said, suggesting visitors come early in the day to enjoy the family-friendly festival environment.
“We have art vendors with a nature theme to their art — jewelry makers, potters, photographers — and we have food vendors,” Huhn said. “We invite various conservation environmental organizations to set up booths with activities primarily for the kids. People can view the lake-marsh area; there are typically bald eagles, raptors, wading birds and water fowl. There’s a number of hiking trails, we have guided nature hikes. It’s just a fun time.”
Things to do if you go:
• Visit artisan booths
• Go on a guided nature hike
• On-your-own nature hikes
• Wildlife viewing with unique opportunities for photography
• Educational booths with kid-friendly activities
• Food vendors
• Picnic facilities