While we couldn’t determine if the road was paved, or even if it was an official one, we followed the single snow packed lane along the edge of the marshy, 22,000 acre Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in a slow and deliberate search for a Whooping Crane sighting. This was before we met the wobbling, jogging skunk that provided an unexpected flair and perhaps a metaphor for our latest Whooping Crane pilgrimage. This all began thanks to a report of a pair of the rare and beautiful birds being spotted at the Refuge last Saturday afternoon.
Just past a farm house adjacent to our winding and rather desolate road, a pickup was threading its way toward us from the opposite direction. “This ought to be interesting,” said Mary, since the road was barely wide enough for one car. We edged as close to the marsh as safely possible to wait. As the truck drew alongside the driver’s window lowered. It was the Refuge manager, a friendly and helpful fellow.
“Oh, yes,” he said when we told him of our venture. “A pair was spotted yesterday afternoon down by the Wilke’s farm, just past one-seventeen. Best to head back to 10, then take the county road south that goes past the park entrance. Probably the way you came.”
Our hopes were buoyed significantly since we had threaded past an interesting ecosystem and saw several bird species along the way. Then, just around the corner and up the road we met the skunk in the middle of the road. On our narrow, snowpacked road. One car width wide with deep snow and icy marshland on either side. That’s how it is with Whooping Crane fever. There are adventures you simple don’t expect and can’t anticipate.
Yet, these birds are so rare, so majestic and beautiful that when there is even a remote possibility of seeing one we seemingly cannot help ourselves. Whooping Cranes are among Mary’s birding passions, right up there with poetic murmurations! I discovered her passion a few years ago when we stopped across from a distant stalk field alongside the North Platte River near Wood River, NE, during the annual spring Sandhill Crane migration. Amidst the hundreds of Sandhills landing and leaving the flat, stalky field was a “blob” of white observers with much higher binocular resolution than ours claimed was a Whooping Crane. She could hardly keep her eyes off the blob, and her excitement was contagious.
About 18 months later, as we were making plans for what has become our annual southern mid-winter road trip, Mary discovered a Whooping Crane launch out of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, TX. On the launch we were actually quite close and personal with a pair of Whoopers on a remote island on the edge of the brackish Refuge. The boat captain claimed to be both shocked and amazed we could actually be so close, and told us how blessed we were for such a unique experience. Indeed, more fuel for the fever!
Then came a report of the sighting last Saturday just a little more than two hours to the west! Since the Sand Lake NWR office was closed due to the pandemic, we couldn’t verify the sighting beforehand. According to the updated reports on the Refuge website the previous Tuesday, though, five Whooping Cranes had been spotted. A strong possibility existed … if they hadn’t already flown. A report posted two days later listed no Whooping Cranes although “approximately 50,000 ducks were observed on the Refuge yesterday, consisting mostly of Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, and Mallards”, along with several thousand White Fronted Geese.
Our debate of “shoulds” and “should we nots” continued until early Sunday morning due to the weather. We awoke to a misty, gloomy grayish morning more attuned to prevailing coastal climates. Our mist, though, was intermittently snowy and icy, decidedly different than a warn trade wind coastal mist. Ominous weather is a deterrent at our age. “Should we drive through this?” we asked ourselves. Around mid-morning we’d decided and quickly sliced ham for sandwiches, collected our binoculars, camera gear and off we went. The fever had won us over.
Digital mapping offered three distinct routes, and we gambled on taking the highway straight out of Sisseton along the northern South Dakota border. Just past Browns Valley the gloomy mist began giving way to a more open sky, and west of Sisseton a yawning patch of blue sky opened to the northwest. Somewhere between there and Houghton the sun broke through. Beautifully. It was now up to the Whooping Cranes. And the ranger had given us hope.
Then we met up with the skunk, which turned to “jog” ahead of us up a tread track in the snowy road. He wouldn’t budge, hugging the road while stopping occasionally to turn and look at us, before lumbering off again. Slowly for us, though likely heart thumping for the striped, Mephitidae mammal. We were a couple miles south of 10 and wondered if we would have to follow the stinky beast all the way to Houghton. About a half mile (and a half hour) later it cut across to the other track, and we eventually found a spot wide barely enough to quickly squeeze by … without being sprayed. Which we did. Successfully! Then we were off to Highway 10 and the Wilkes’ farm, which was noted with a huge yard sign.
Doggedly we searched, on both sides of the highway, and I even gave a thought of heading up the Wilke’s driveway … which Mary forbade. We saw numerous though not thousands of ducks, a handful of Bald Eagles, a swooping Falcon and even a couple of Wilson’s Snipes that dipped and swooped too quickly for my aging focusing abilities. Though no Whooping Cranes. We took our picnic lunch while gazing through the windshield at the interesting marshy meadows before giving it another try, driving slowly up the county road past the Wilke’s driveway to 117. We took that road cutting across the Refuge and over a bridge and caught another Eagle sighting before turning around and heading back out the road.
We took a different route home, past Webster and Waubay … both noted for their immense migrations of Snow Geese come spring. Such is life with Whooper fever. We escaped our “four walls” along with what appeared to be a long, gray and gloomy day. One that would have passed ever so slowly with the NFL and political ads (infinitum). The blue skies and sunshine were indeed awakening, yet soothing for the soul. Adding to that, sometimes it comes down to a hopeful sighting, a delightful windshield picnic and following a wobbling skunk down a snowy, one path gravel road.