Notes from the North Country

by Lon and Lynn Emerick

It is an unexpectedly mild evening in early April and a fine time to look for the first signs of spring. There is an ecstasy among dwellers in this northern climate, a delight in every small portent that the vernal season of green, wild flowers and moving water soon will arrive.
After the long winter, the hunger is on us: We will mosey along Beckman Road in West Branch Township to savor the arrival of spring. Parking the car near the bridge over the Chocolay River, we marvel at the surging water. There, look, a small gray bird wagging his tail and calling his name, “Phoebe.” He seems to be inspecting the underside of the bridge for a nesting spot.
Although snow lingers in the woods, the old farm fields lie open and the aroma of the rich soil emerging from a lengthy hibernation is in the air.
Moving slowly, we approach an abandoned farmhouse surrounded by huge fields. There, not more than thirty yards away, is a pair of Sandhill Cranes performing their courtship ritual.
The huge birds face each other, bob their heads up and down in a bowing motion, then leap upward with their feet thrust forward. Landing in an almost-ballet movement, the birds compose themselves, leap again, and repeat the entire sequence several times.
Sandhill Cranes are imposing birds—four feet tall, and with a seven-foot wingspan. They sport a red crown, a soft-gray body, long dark legs and a clump of tail feathers that resemble an old fashioned bustle.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the population of Sandhill Cranes was dangerously low due to liberal hunting seasons and the destruction of wetland habitat. Now the birds are making a comeback, both locally and across parts of the nation.
The courting cranes must have sensed they were being watched. Suddenly they take flight, call in unison (experts try to use words to portray the call—“gahr-o-o-o-oo” often is used, but you have to hear it for yourself), circle the field and head toward the east.
If you would like to see Sandhill Cranes this spring, look in open fields southeast of Marquette and many sites in Alger County. The Green Garden area south of Marquette, the fields north of Sundell and Rumely, and around the hamlet of Traunik are good spots for viewing cranes in April. Be sure to bring binoculars for close-up views. Always respect private property.
For over a dozen years, an Alger County group, coordinated first by John Pepin, then Mary Snitgen and now Jude Holloway, with up to forty volunteer counters, has surveyed the crane population in April. The Alger County count, part of a nationwide annual census, has found increasing numbers of cranes over the years of the annual survey. Join in on April 18 this year as a volunteer crane counter and see for yourself; call Jude at 387-4659 for information.
In September, resident Sandhill Cranes gather to make the annual fall migration. Large numbers of the birds can be seen in assembly sites west of the AuTrain Basin in Alger County. If you would like to see (and hear) thousands of cranes assembling, go to the Platte River in Nebraska in late March/early April. Kearney (Nebraska) is one town that caters to crane-watchers with festivals, other special events and even “crane-trains” for transport of visitors to watching sites.

— Lon and Lynn Emerick

Editor’s Note: Comments are welcome by writing MM or e-mailing marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org
Lon and Lynn Emerick’s Upper Peninsula books: The Superior Peninsula, Going Back to Central, Lumberjack—Inside an Era, Sharing the Journey, You Wouldn’t Like it Here and You STILL Wouldn’t Like it Here are available at area book and gift stores or by visiting their Web site at www.northcountrypublishing.com

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