Sunday, April 6, 2014

Crex Meadows birding opportunities abound

Erickson Flowage, Crex Meadows Wildlife Area
With spring’s arrival, tens of thousands of rare and endangered birds are gathering on their annual migration at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. A plethora of trails run through the wildlife area, an expansive 30,000-acre wetlands in southwest Burnett County, Wisconsin.

The wildlife area owes its modern landscape to the last ice age. As glaciers melted some 13,000 years ago, Glacial Lake Grantsburg stretched from this region into central Minnesota. The result was a deposit of sandy sediment that covers the ground. As the meltwater lake drained away, it left wetlands and brush prairie in its wake – all territory that waterfowl and many other bird species particularly appreciate.

Crex Meadow is most recognized for the major role it plays during waterfowl migrations each spring and autumn. The National Bird Conservancy lists the area as among the 500 Globally Important Bird Areas in the United States of America. In all, 270 different bird species have been spotted in Crex Meadows.

A number of those species can be seen there during any time of the year. Among them are endangered eagles, ospreys, and trumpeter swans.

Other birds prefer to make Crex Meadows their seasonal home. They include Caspian terns, great egrets, and peregrine falcon.

Migrations mark the greatest abundance of waterfowl in Crex Meadows. Perhaps the most spectacular of the arrivals are sandhill cranes. They can grow up to four feet tall with wingspans of up to seven feet wide. Migration seasons vary from year to year, but sandhill cranes (and other traveling waterfowl) generally can be spotted from April through mid-May on their way north and mid-September through October on their way south.

Many of the wildlife area’s human visitors come primarily to see sandhill cranes. The cranes typically stay in the wildlife area’s wetlands at night and then feed in nearby farm fields during the day. Your best bet for spotting a one is to catch them on their flights to and from these locations about an hour to 90 minutes after sunrise or before sunset. Good trails for these sightings are those along East Refuge Road, Main Dike Road, and Phantom Lake Road.

Other intriguing birds you’re likely to spot in Crex Meadows includes blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, loons, mallards, prairie chickens, ring-necked ducks, sharp-tailed grouse, and wild turkeys.

Regular updates on which birds and other wildlife can be seen at Crex Meadows are available online.

How to Get There
From either Minneapolis-St. Paul or Duluth, Minn., take Interstate 35 to Pine County. Exit on Minn. Hwy. 70 south of Pine City and head east over the St. Croix River, where the road becomes Wis. Hwy. 70; continue on to Grantsburg.

For Chicago and southern Wisconsin residents, take Interstate 94 north to Hudson, Wis. Exit onto Hwy. 35 and head north. In Siren, go west on Hwy. 70 to Grantsburg.

From Grantsburg take the road going north at the Wis. Hwys. 70, 87 and 48 intersection. Watch for and follow the yellow goose painted on the roadway, which winds you through town until reaching the intersection of County Roads D and F. This is the wildlife area’s southwestern corner and the visitor center’s location.

When to Visit
The best months to day hike Crex Meadows are May through September. Depending on the year, April and October also can be pleasant.

Most migrating birds can be spotted from April through mid-May and from mid-September through October. Migration seasons vary from year to year.

As with the rest of the Midwest, summers can be humid, especially July and August. Rain also can occur during the afternoon even when the morning is sunny, so always check the weather forecast before heading on a hike.

Hours and Admission
The wildlife area always is open and there is no fee to enter, park your vehicle, or to hike. Various events and activities may require a fee, however.

The visitor center located at Crex Meadows’s southwest corner – the junction of County Roads F and D, does have limited hours:
g Monday-Friday: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. except major holidays
g Saturday-Sunday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. April through October

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.