Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sandhill Crane Experience

A small flock of gangling-looking birds were walking near the shore of a small southern Michigan lake I was paddling on a recent Sunday. At first I thought they were herons, which often are found along the edges of small lakes and ponds, but as my craft glided closer to shore, I heard the distinctive squawk of Sandhill Cranes, a rare prehistoric looking migratory bird.
I’d seen them before on remote Upper Peninsula lakes, but never before so close to the heavily populated areas of southeastern Michigan, and on a little-used, undeveloped lake. I felt like I was in the Upper Peninsula instead of being surrounded by millions of people.
While the cranes aren’t on the Endangered Species list, they are fairly rare. There are only about 800 nesting pairs in Michigan, with the population split between the eastern Upper Peninsula and the Ann Arbor-Chelsea area of Washtenaw County.
According to the State Department of Natural Resources, Sandhill Cranes aren’t very sensitive to the intrusion of humans. That trait nearly lead to their extinction in the 20th century, when they were hunted as game birds. The best way to approach the cranes is by canoe or kayak, because of their silence.
The Washtenaw County lakes where the cranes are found are very accessible, and are less than a ten minute drive from the busy I-94 corridor between Chicago and Detroit. The drive times are about three and a half hours from Chicago, and under an hour from Detroit.
Take either the Dexter or Chelsea exits. Both are quintessential, small Midwestern towns where the main streets are lined with small shops and restaurants.

On Mill Lake, a paddler may encounter a few anglers in small boats, but on Four Mile Lake, in the fall there will be a few duck hunters. They’re usually only hunting in the early morning or evening. Both lakes can be paddled around in about two hours.
If you want to see the cranes, take it slow and stay 20-30 yards from shore. Although the cranes have distinctive markings, they do blend in to their surroundings. Get a bird book and make yourself familiar with the markings, and also with that of herons. Both species look similar and are found in the shallow waters near shore. Herons are either white or have a blue-grey look to them. Also, herons tend to be more solitary, and you will see lone birds hunting for fish. Cranes are more often seen in either nesting pairs or in family groups.
Paddlers will need to bring their own canoes or kayaks. There are no boat rentals on the lakes. The boat launches at both lakes are easy to negotiate and there is parking. Mill Lake has an outhouse, but there are no facilities at Four Mile Lake.
Mill Lake is in the Waterloo Recreation Area, which is operated by the state Department of Natural Resources. A State Park sticker is required.

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