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I made my annual fall outing to Crex Meadows, near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, this past week. The fall bird migration is in full swing. The main attraction are the thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Last week the estimate was about eight thousand Cranes in the area. This year I saw more Sandhill Cranes than in past years although there didn’t seem to be as many Canada Geese around, possibly because they are allowing hunting in the surrounding areas for the first time this year.

Moonrise Crex Meadows

I try and time my trip to coincide with the full moon so I have to opportunity to shoot the sunset and moon rise as well as the sunrise and moonset. Apparently I’m not the only one who plans their a trip around the full moon because there were more photographers and birdwatchers around this year than ever before.

This year was different than the last few years. Northern Wisconsin has been having a drought so the water levels at Crex have been low. As a result many of the birds had been roosting near the dike roads. This year the water levels were high and the birds were forced to seek shallow water and as a result were roosting deeper in the refuge and away from the roads. There was virtually no opportunities to shoot roosting birds this trip.

Sandhill Cranes Sunset Flight

I found the best shooting location was on Main Dike Road just west of the junction of East Refuge Road and Main Dike Road. The birds start returning from their feeding locations about an hour and a half before sunset. Because the birds are nesting deep in the refuge north of Main Dike Road all of the photo opportunities were of birds in flight as they flew over Main Dike Road between West and East Refuge Roads.

Crex Meadows Sunset

As an added bonus there was a spectacular sunset. It had been clear during the day and according to the weather reports was going to remain clear. However late in the day a large cloudbank moved in. I thought there wasn’t going to be much of a sunset but at just the right time it cleared on the western horizon creating some fantastic color under the clouds.

Sandhill Cranes Sunrise Flight

In the morning the same shooting location works because the birds return to the feeding areas using the same flyways. In the morning there were Canada Geese in addition to the cranes. The birds start leaving their roosting area around sunrise and continue to do so for about an hour and a half after sunrise.

Trumpeter Swans

Normally there are large numbers of birds in the flowages during the day but this year there were relatively few birds mainly Coots in small groups on Phantom Lake. The perimeter flowages didn’t have many birds possibly because of the open hunting season this year. The first day I saw a few Trumpeter Swans back in the marshes but nothing to photograph. The second day they were closer to the dikes and offered some photo opportunities. I also saw a number of Bald Eagles, Osprey and about a dozen Northern Harriers above the marsh areas. This was also the first time that I saw mink along the dike roads.

Sandhill Cranes Feeding

If you arrive in the area during the day the Sandhill Cranes and Geese will be found feeding in the corn and bean fields south and east of Grantsburg. I found flocks of several hundred birds each feeding just off of highway 87 just north of Gretteum flowage. If you drive around you will see birds moving from one feeding location to another. Just follow the birds and you will likely see more.

Photographing at Crex can be hard on equipment. Most of the dike roads are dirt and everything is covered with a fine dust by the end of the day. There was also enough traffic to kick up dust for photographers along the road. I had to constantly work to keep the lens dust free and even then ended up with lots of dust spots.

You can check on the status of the migration by looking at the Crex Meadow website. Also make sure you stop at the great visitors center. They can be very helpful in directing you to the best locations and time as well as to what type of birds are around.

There are more shots from this year’s trip on my website.

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