Crex Meadows, Sandhill Cranes and Thoughts on the Inner Compass
A couple weeks ago, we went on our annual family pilgrimage to a place in northern Wisconsin called Crex Meadows. It’s a wildlife refuge and favorite pit-stop for sandhill cranes and many other migratory birds.
We first read about the sandhill cranes about 15 years ago in the local paper and made a day trip with our son Sawyer who was around 18 months old at the time. Even though that first year we didn’t see many cranes, there was something about the place and those beautiful creatures that captivated us. A few years later, when our daughter Zola was a toddler, we started making it a favorite fall tradition.
The refuge has a wild and empty vibe stretching over 30,000 acres of restored brush prairie and wetlands. Bumping along the rugged gravel roads under a wide open sky feels a little like a midwest safari as we peer excitedly out the open windows searching for signs of life.
As the largest area of the endangered pine barrens ecosystem in Wisonsin, Crex Meadows boasts impressive biodiversity including 280 species of birds that call this place home. In the fall, migrating birds, specifically the Greater Sandhill Cranes, are the big draw. It’s estimated that 15-20% of the world population passes through this area in Wisconsin each year with annual counts between 15,000-20,000 at Crex Meadows.
If you’ve never experienced cranes, they have several unique charms. They are long and lean with 6-foot wing spans and while graceful in flight, the hovering, teetering descent before landing is comically awkward.
Nothing is more distinctive than their loud and raucous collective calls (link to sound sample below). In the morning, well before the sunrise, we awake to a chorus of thousands of cranes greeting the day and, I imagine, warming up before they take flight.
This year we were also delighted to see (and hear) more trumpeter swans than ever before. They woke us up in the night with what sounded like a car horn going off; we suspect coyotes or some other critters were behind that sounding alarm in the cold, still night. We were happy to see so many swan families alive and well the following day!
I started thinking more about migration. Don’t we all marvel, a bit enviously perhaps, at the freedom of flying? And don’t we wonder how they do it? How they find their way – sometimes traveling to a place they’ve never been before?
I did a little research. The All About Birds guide by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains that birds use a combination of senses in their wayfinding:
Birds can get compass information from the sun, the stars, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They also get information from the position of the setting sun and from landmarks seen during the day.
The author admits that our knowledge of migration is still limited – there’s mystery in it. Somehow, they just know.
The energy of this place reminds me that I, too, am a wild creature. When I can strip away the business of modern life and the chatter of my own thoughts, whether I tune in to the rhythm of my own breath on my yoga mat, the sound of the wind in the trees, or the soaring of the cranes, this connection brings me back to my true self, my own inner compass.
We don’t have to struggle to know who we are or find our way – the answers are within us. It’s like a favorite quote of mine from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:
As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.
Sandhill cranes don’t fly in a strict V-formation like Canadian geese. They move within an irregular, undulating and ever-changing line. In times of uncertainty, I am comforted by the idea that change unfolds within the certainty of the seasons, repetition exists alongside infinite variation and, living fully in the present moment is the only way to fly.
These were the ideas tumbling around in my head when I created this month’s playlist. Home, sky, freedom, flight, belonging. These are songs for the journey. You are nature. Trust yourself.
Migration Songs (12: October 2020)
To migrate is to have faith in the journey while holding home in your heart. This month’s playlist is inspired by the freedom of flight, the power of nature, roots that let you rise, and the promise of every new day.
Rising | Reuben and the Dark
I Knew I Could Fly | Our Native Daughters
Home in Your Heart | Elephant Revival
Song For Leaving | Brett Dennen
No Roots | Alice Merton
Light of a Clear Blue Morning | Dolly Parton
On the Road To Find Out | Cat Stevens (Yusuf)
Shine a Different Way | Patty Griffin
This Sky | The Derek Trucks Band
Human Thing | The Be Good Tanyas
Bring It on Home | Current Swell
All This Beauty | The Weepies
Crex Meadows Wildlife Refuge Find more information about the history and management of this area as well as visitor’s information and wildlife reports.
The Basics of Bird Migration, All About Birds an online resource from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Sandhill Crane calls: To hear the unique crane song, scroll to the bottom and click on “flock flying overhead”. Then imagine the sound multiplied by a couple thousand or more!
Sandhill Crane on Photo Ark, a project by photographer Joel Sartore and National Geographic
Learn Crane Pose on Yoga Journal – practice the strength that helps you soar in this bird-inspired arm balancing pose.
Crex Meadows sunrise progression.