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Every year in the fall I try to visit Crex Meadows. The main attraction, for me, is the opportunity to view and photograph Sandhill Cranes. Crex Meadows is one of the best locations in the Midwest to view and photograph Sandhill Cranes. Last Friday I made my second trip. I wasn’t sure how many cranes would still be around the first week on November but gambled that there would be enough to photograph. In talking with the staff at the visitors center they indicated there are still over 9,000 cranes at crex. I typically stay overnight at the Wood River Motel so I have a chance to photograph the incoming flights at sunset and the outgoing flights at sunrise the next morning.

Crex is a couple of hours northwest of my home so I give myself time to view the cranes in the fields south of Grantsburg before I drive on to Crex Meadows. About five miles south of Grantsburg at the junction of highway 48 and 87 is where I normally start looking for cranes in the fields. Normally they can be found along highway 87 but this year there was a lot of standing corn so I took some of the side roads intersecting highway 87. It wasn’t long before I started seeing large numbers of Sandhill Cranes in the corn and bean fields. The first shot is of two adults and a juvenile. The second shows the large numbers of cranes in the field.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

After driving around looking for birds feeding in the fields I continued on to Crex Meadows. My first stop is always at the visitors center to check on current conditions. I like to drive around the entire area to check things out before I return to photograph the sunset crane flight. I saw a few beaver and a couple of Trumpeter Swans and a few Coots but things were fairly quiet during the afternoon. I managed this shot of a lily pad before heading for my evening shooting location.

Lily Pad

Typically the best location to view the evening flight is along Main Dyke Road between East and West Refuge Roads. The flight in to the evening roosting grounds is directly over Main Dyke Road. No matter where you stop it appears that more birds are flying over another section of the road but if you wait you will be rewarded with plenty of birds. On Thursday evening there were not a lot of cars on the road, probably less than a half dozen. Most likely most of the photographers made the trip in October. Some of the folks view the evening flight brought their lawn chairs. The following photos show the incoming flights as the evening progressed as well as a nice moon shot.

Sandhill Cranes Sunset Flight

Sandhill Cranes Sunset Flight

Sandhill Cranes Sunset Flight

The next morning I had planned to head out to roosting locations and have some coffee and donuts while I watched the sun rise on the cranes. However, as I was driving out to Phantom Lake I noticed that the sunrise was going to be outstanding. When I arrived at Phantom Lake there was no wind and the lake was like glass. I changed my plans and spent some time photographing the sunrise. As the sun peaked over the horizon the clouds lost their color so I move on to the roosting grounds.

Sunrise Phantom Lake

Sunrise Phantom Lake

Driving along Main Dyke Road I noticed several large groups of cranes close to the road but I thought things would be better along Upper Phantom Lake where I photographed the evening flight. As it turned out, for the most part, the cranes were roosting back from the road and were too far away so I drove back to the area near Dyke 4 and setup waited for the sun to reach the cranes. The clouds that were so beautiful just before sunrise were now obscuring the sun so the light on the cranes was not the best. Shortly after sunrise the cranes started lifting off and heading for their feeding grounds.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes Morning Flight

Sandhill Cranes

After the morning flight I drove over to North Fork Flowage. I skipped it the previous evening because I haven’t seen much in the flowage the last couple of trips. The DNR lowered the water in the flowage this summer as part of their plan to keep the flowage in prime condition for waterfowl. They typically lower the flowages on a rotating basis every six years. This kills off the vegetation along the shore and allows better vegetation to replace it. These stumps were revealed in the lowered flowage.


This time I lucked out. There were 15 Trumpeter Swans in the flowage including one family. I couldn’t see the bands so I couldn’t tell if this was the same family I had photographed in my last trip.

Trumpeter Swans

I also saw a boat loaded with hunters returning from the morning hunt. When I first started visiting Crex Meadows I would see as many Canada Geese as I did Sandhill Cranes in the morning and evening flights. Several years ago they opened most of crex to goose hunting. As a result the opportunity to photograph geese had dried up. I didn’t see a single goose in the morning or evening flight on this trip. I shudder to think what will happen when they start a Sandhill Crane hunting season. Seems the photographers and birdwatchers take a back seat to the hunters.


As I was leaving I noticed frost along the shore so I stopped to take a closer look. There were some great frost shots the first of the year.


No trip through Crex Meadows is complete without a stop at the Sand Blow. I never know what I’m going to find. On one trip there were fresh bear tracks in the sand on another wolf tracks. There wasn’t all that much this trip.

Sand Blow

I drove back to Phantom Lake. Most of the cranes were gone for the day to feed in the fields by the time I drove through. I did find a large number of Coots along the shore of Phantom Lake. I watched them feed for quite a while. They didn’t seemed to be bothered that I was watching them.


More photos from Crex Meadows on my website.

One Comment

  1. Beautiful images!

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