As afternoon slides into evening on a cool October day at Baker Sanctuary, north of Marshall, the skies fill with the distinctive profiles of sandhill cranes, their long necks stretched out straight in flight, their legs dropping low for a landing as they descend to the wetlands of Big Marsh Lake.
If you’re lucky enough to have binoculars or a high-powered scope, you can see the sun catch the bright-red patches on their foreheads and crowns. But observing the fall stopover of these huge migratory birds is not just a unique visual feast. It’s also an unforgettable auditory sensation, as the air reverberates with their loud, fluttering calls.
Last year more than 9,400 sandhill cranes stopped at Baker Sanctuary on their way south to states stretching from Tennessee to Florida. That number is especially impressive when you consider that this ancient species almost became extinct in the 1930s because of the pesticide DDT.
The cranes that stop over at Baker Sanctuary come mostly from northern Michigan, but a few may fly in from Canada, says Wendy Tatar, program coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society. Some of the birds start to trickle into southern Michigan during the summer, but the largest numbers begin arriving in October. How long they stay depends on the weather. “As long as they can find food here, they stay,” Tatar says. ”Last year they left in mid-December and were back by the end of January.”
The marshy areas of the 900-acre Baker Sanctuary provide a perfect habitat for the birds, which stand as tall as 5 1/2 feet. “They want to roost in water of a certain depth,” Tatar says. “One of their main predators is coyotes, and the water keeps coyotes away.”
Every fall since 1995, the Michigan Audubon Society and the Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek have celebrated the birds by hosting the Sandhill Crane & Art Festival — CraneFest for short. The event, which draws as many as 7,000 people, is held at the Kiwanis Youth Conservation Area, overlooking Big Marsh Lake.
This year’s CraneFest is Oct. 12 and 13. It will feature an exhibit by Michigan nature artists, guided nature walks, hillside nature chats, a nature bookstore, hay rides and kids’ nature crafts, among other activities and exhibits.
The centerpiece of the festival, of course, is the cranes. Their daily fly-in begins at about 4 p.m. Some birds arrive from up north, and others return to the lake after a day of foraging. The largest number of cranes can usually be seen between 5 p.m. and sunset.
Festival days are not the only time you can see the cranes, however. On Saturdays and Sundays following the festival, the Kiwanis area is open for crane viewing from 4 to 7 p.m. through Nov. 10.
Sometimes you’ll see the cranes flying directly overhead, but the greatest numbers are in the wetlands, about 100 to 200 yards away from the viewing area. So don’t forget binoculars. But even if you do, no need to worry: There’s often someone with a telescope who is willing to share the magnificent view. And as for those cries of the cranes, no amplification needed.