Sandhill Crane Rebound On Track

May 17, 2016

A quarter-century after its return to Iowa, the sandhill crane continues to expand its range across the state. Volunteers have completed their annual census. 

Enthusiasts gather before sunrise at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt, a vast wildlife and recreation area in the northeast Polk County -- the state's most metropolitan county. 

Chichaqua Wildlife Area marsh, near Elkhart.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

"We hear all the time, people will tell us they'll say I didn't know this was here, I had no idea it was here, and you know we're 30 miles from Des Moines, maybe 20 miles as a crow flies," says Doug Sheely, a supervisor at Chichaqua.

A lot more than crows have re-discovered this diverse habitat. The alluring sandhill crane is one of the more recent creatures to home-in on the marshes of Chichaqua. Two dozen census takers fan out across the wildest part of Polk County.  Volunteer Robert Vespestad and coordinator Walter Rollman guides us over a course of several miles, and we listen for a bit.

During the dawn performance of early birds, it takes a trained spotter to detect the call of the sandhill crane, an enchanting staccato that pierces through the background clatter.   

Walter Rollman is a coordinator for the International Crane Foundation.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

Throughout the 90 minute crane count, Rollman uses GPS and texting to keep tabs on the other scouts. Hearing the yodeling call is validation enough; a confirmed sighting is better. Vespestad spied the lone crane, foraging in an open field.

Spotters on this morning counted a record 19 cranes at Chichaqua.  A nearby resident had never seen one in Iowa, until now.

"We saw one that just flew right over us. That's what what we wanted we wanted to see them."

Few Iowans have seen the tall, gangly birds that are often confused with herons. Cranes are more plentiful in Nebraska and Wisconsin, but they abandoned Iowa in the late 1890s because of over-hunting and loss of habitat.  Chichaqua is just what they need, according to Doug Sheeley with Polk County Conservation.

Chichaqua has grown from 300 acres in 1960 to more than 8,000 acres today.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

"They won't come back to a hundred acres, or 200 acres or 500 acres," Sheely says.  "They need large expanses of area to come back to so if you're going to get those kinds of charismatic wildlife species coming back you need big areas."

It was at the close of the spring survey when a crane bugled his presence at Chichaqua, as if to say 'we're back.'

Since its meager beginning in 1960, Chichaqua has grown to more than 8,000 acres and is one of Iowa's premier greenbelts. Pat Phelan grew up here. His family sold 1,300 acres for restoration of the wetlands, and now school kids make field trips.

Retired farmer Pat Phelan at his church, Holy Cross, which is virtually surrounded by Chichaqua.
Credit Iowa Public Radio

"To come out here and see it and get muddy and get wet and get dirty, but they really see what nature is like and what this was like when the pioneers first came over here," he says.

Sandhill cranes have been reproducing in northern and eastern Iowa for decades. Bremer County volunteers counted 63 cranes last month. Now, they are on the outskirts of Des Moines. 

"You know they spin their magic, these wetlands are out heritage and you know they were a long time gone, 98 years gone, and now that they've returned let's keep 'em with us this time," says Pat Schlarbaum, of the Department of Natural Resources.

The crane count this spring is promising, but imprecise. Autumn provides a better assessment, as young cares -- called colts -- become more active, when conservationists can verify that sandhill cranes are not just visiting Iowa, but raising families as well. 

Confirmed sighting at Chichaqua, a half mile away.
Credit Walter Rollman