Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Finding Crex

"Follow the goose to Crex Meadows." That's what the signs say when you hit the stoplight in Grantsburg, WI. They came up with a clever idea to help make it work, using a large flying goose stencil and yellow highway paint to leave symbols on the roadway to follow. Mostly it works, except when it doesn't.

There are a couple small problems. Nobody apparently has repainted the geese for a few years, judging by how faded most of them are. And when you come to a corner where you need to turn, it would have been easy to angle the goose in the direction of your upcoming turn, rather than leaving them straight and you wondering just how you missed your trail when you fail to turn and there's no new goose.

So if you haven't been there yet, here's a little help. You start with the Grantsburg stoplight at the intersection of Hwy. 70 as it heads east-west between Miinnnesota (you can pick it up off I-35 south of Pine City) and, say, Siren, WI, and the northern point of Hwy. 87 as it heads up from St. Croix Falls. If you are shooting at it from somewhere up north in Wisconsin you're on your own: get a map or try to trust your GPS. Once at the stoplight, I like to hit the Subway for the only fast food chain in town. You'll be a while in Crex. There's also gas and restrooms there, if it's been that kind of drive.

Then head north down the hill a few blocks to the stop sign. Go left a block, right for several blocks past the city park and campground (great place to tent or RV) to the "T", right a block, then left/north again. In other words, you'd just be going straight north if the streets went that way, but you gotta detour a block for the bridge over the creek and back again. When you get to Co. D, turn right. Crex is northeast of you starting at that corner, a sign there announcing that fact. Looking past it reveals the information center.

You can watch videos there, peruse their museum of stuffed animals and birds, shop the store, interview the staff. Your choice. But by all means, use the facilities since there's only one more rustic building on the north end of the refuge. And get yourself a map: you will need it. Crex covers 30,000 acres and has a variety of roads running through it, turning often enough that even after going through it regularly for several years one can wind up with no sense of direction. There are both east and west Refuge Roads, different Dike roads, and plenty others to take you around and confuse you without that map.

But it is worth the effort.There is a central wildlife refuge where you are absolutely not allowed to set foot for any reason. You can, however, drive all around it, park in several overlooks, and photograph anything you can see from the edge of the road. The surrounding area has roads, paths, even a rest area where overnight stays are allowed after registering at the info center. Fall brings duck hunters, who are a major contributor to sponsoring the area for the rest of us, in conjunction with the WI DNR.

So why go there? It has a wolf pack, coyotes, deer, otters, and many other varieties of mammals just to start. Add 270 species of birds, particularly during migrations. Throw in 86 butterfly species, 720 plant species, and a plethora of reptiles, amphibians, and insects.

You will of course never see more than a merest fraction of them in any given visit. But you will see plenty, given a little patience, a little more time, and keeping your eyes open. I have never failed to visit without seeing trumpeter swans, and it's primary claim to fame, sandhill cranes. (OK, I only visit during the warmer months.) Today, for example, I saw at least 46 trumpeter swan adults and over a dozen cygnets recently hatched, though the babies are harder to count, being carefully shepherded by their parents and often far enough from the roads that they only register as something extra with the adults.

I also managed to spy 4 sandhills, though none close nor still enough for a picture. Most of that is my own fault, as they are most visible early and late in the day, and I picked the middle to show up. This area is a major fall (Oct./Nov.) staging ground for the cranes before their southward migration, often holding between 10 and 20,000 birds during a period of a month or so. So many collect that a couple of years they were joined for a few weeks by young whooping cranes, presumably seeking company.

If you are an early morning person, during staging season you can park near one of their gathering sites and watch sunrise mass liftoffs. Otherwise, load the family in the car, head in with or just after supper, find your parking spot, and watch them land in twos or fives or twenties. Ditch those I-pods, turn off the radio, and just listen to their primordial cries as they arrive and dispute each slice of nighttime territory: shivers! I just recommend you have some familiarity with the place before all that. It could take you a couple hours to find your way out in the dark otherwise.

Today's drive through also netted several turtles, one doe, one loon, both yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, tree swallows, one hawk tentatively identified as a harrier but the glimpse was brief, canada geese, unidentified ducks plus one definite drake mallard, though I missed the white ibis the center's staff pointed me to on the map. There were numerous flowers including lupines, iris, paintbrush, nymphaea and white water lilies, an abundance of  unidentified blooms in pink, yellow, white, purple, orange. Plenty of scenery caught my eye and my lens, varying from prairie to forest to marsh to lake or pond. If you are like me, you also enjoy the remnants of dead tree trunks left peppering the landscape.

Add the variety of seasons, daily or hourly changes in clouds and lighting, and it's a feast for eye or camera. Just follow the goose. Or whatever.

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