Crane watch on the Pecatonica River

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111159939914928.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of Natural Land Institute’, ‘Whooping cranes raised for reintroduction in Eastern North America stopped along the Pecatonica River in Winnebago County last fall. By following ultralight aircraft, they learned their migration route to Florida and will return to Wisconsin on their own in the spring.’);

Last summer, the Natural Land Institute celebrated the hatch of a sandhill crane chick in the restored wetlands at the Nygren Wetland Preserve west of Rockton, Ill. Once abundant on the large marshes in northern and central Illinois, sandhill cranes were very rare by the late 1800s due primarily to destruction of wetlands. Breeding pairs are still uncommon in Illinois. Local monitors for the International Crane Foundation have documented an average of eight nesting pairs in Winnebago County during each of the past three years.

Last fall, hundreds of sandhill cranes used the Nygren Preserve as a stopping point on their southern migration. Nancy Gates, a volunteer for the Natural Land Institute, heard them calling from the shallow waters near the Pecatonica River at dusk in mid-November. Employee Art Oliver reported seeing a flock of about 100 later in the month.

During the past two years, a small number of whooping cranes, raised for reintroduction in Eastern North America, have been observed migrating with the sandhill cranes. On Nov. 22, 2004, a male whooping crane was seen in Clark County, Wis., with hundreds of staging sandhills. This 3-year-old was taught to follow an ultralight aircraft to learn his migration route between Wisconsin and Florida. He and more than 30 whooping cranes are now able to migrate on their own, and are likely to use the undisturbed marshes and ponds at the Nygren Preserve. Sixteen of the youngest birds, along with the ultralights leading them, stopped along the Pecatonica River in Winnebago County last October on their way to Florida.

We will continue to keep you updated as sandhill cranes—and perhaps whooping cranes—return to the tranquility of the land at the Nygren Wetland Preserve, where the Pecatonica River flows into the Rock. The restoration of native vegetation on the 721-acre site is a project of the Natural Land Institute, a not-for-profit, private land conservation organization based in Rockford.

Note: The best place to observe cranes without disturbing them is from the overlook structure at the Hansberry Road entrance at the Nygren Wetland Preserve, open every day from dawn to dusk. Contact NLI at (815) 964-6666 for information. Spring migration is coming soon!

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