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Illinois hunting and fishing

Five adult whooping cranes stopped over in Marshall County this week. Photos by Chris Young.

Whooping cranes make migratory stop near Henry

December 09, 2011 at 11:30 PM

The State Journal-Register

HENRY—When biologist Stan McTaggart spotted five whooping cranes Tuesday evening near Henry, along the Illinois River in Marshall County, he wasn’t sure anyone would believe him.

It didn’t matter.

Federally endangered whooping cranes carry plenty of their own identification.

The cranes spotted making a migration stopover on Billsbach Lake between the Illinois River and Illinois 26 wore radio transmitters and colored leg bands.

All that jewelry helps researchers keep tabs on the five-foot-tall birds, part of attempts to re-introduce whooping cranes to the eastern half of North America.

According to the International Crane Foundation, the cranes left the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin Nov. 20, stopping in Ogle County before winding up at the Marshall State Fish and Wildlife Area and the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge’s Cameron-Billsbach Unit.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 383 whooping cranes are left in the wild, mostly west of the Mississippi River.

McTaggart, a wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, is based at the Marshall site near Henry.

He and site superintendent Tony Colvin hiked through the 356-acre “Duck Ranch,” a DNR property bordering Billsbach Lake to take a look at the birds.

This time of year, site personnel are focused on waterfowl, but McTaggart and Colvin interrupted their conversation about duck blinds and goose hunters when the cranes came into view.

Even at a distance, the crane’s calls were distinctive, almost primitive sounding.

“Spotting whooping cranes on our site is the most significant wildlife observation in my 21-year career,” Colvin said. “Especially given how rare they are. We’ve never had anything like this happen in this area.”

That’s saying something since the Duck Ranch can host dozens of bald eagles during the winter.

“The wintering eagles love this stretch,” Colvin said.

Hiking out to look at the cranes, one must pass a beaver lodge — complete with muddy play slide — and a levee crossing for otters and other critters.

Canada geese and mallards paddle around in small, ice-free pools.

“But when it comes to wildlife sightings, (the whooping cranes) take the cake,” he said.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Stan McTaggart watches the whooping cranes through a spotting scope.

Looking through a spotting scope and examining photos, it was possible to determine the order of the colored bands on the crane’s legs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a Web page where observers can turn in crane sightings.

Within a half hour, the Fish and Wildlife Service responded, asking for a photo. Shortly after that, Eva Szyszkoski of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., e-mailed with more information about the cranes.

Four were 2 ½ years old, and the fifth 1 ½ years old. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, whooping cranes can live up to 30 years in the wild.

All five were hatched in captivity. Two were hatched at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and were part of the 2009 group that followed an ultralight aircraft on its initial migration.

The other three were hatched at the Crane Foundation and released in the fall so they could learn to migrate from older, more experienced Sandhill and whooping cranes.

By Friday, it appeared the birds had moved on.

“I didn’t see any this morning,” McTaggart said. “But we had a half-inch of snow and it can be pretty hard to see white birds — no matter how big they are — on a day like this.”

Colvin checked again late in the afternoon, but it appeared the cranes had continued their journey south.

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

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