I can hear his call before I see him. A throaty mix of noise that sounds like an auto-tuned car horn and trumpet — difficult to describe but impossible to ignore.
As I round the northern side of the Johnson Exhibit Pond at the International Crane Foundation headquarters, I finally see the majestic animal: a tall, elegant, hooded crane, proudly stalking along the fence of his enclosure, challenging anyone to trespass on his territory.
The bird is one of 15 species of cranes at the foundation, located on a 225-acre campus of restored prairie and woodland landscape between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells in central Wisconsin. This is the only place in the world to see every living species of crane, the world's tallest flying bird.
"I think a lot of people think they need to be world-class birders to come here, but you don't have to. You just have to love nature," says Kate Fitzwilliams, marketing/PR specialist for the foundation.
She's right. The expansive, well-maintained grounds have something for everyone, with plenty of descriptive plaques and opportunities for getting a close look at a multitude of cranes. Plus, more than four miles of trails wind through 100 acres of restored prairie, woodlands and wetlands.
"I can't believe this international foundation is here," a woman whispers to her husband during a recent tour. I share her marvel as I walk the grounds, gawking at one impressive bird after another and learning more about the widespread reach of the foundation.
Why Wisconsin? The foundation got its start in 1973 when two ornithology students — George Archibald and Ron Sauey — turned their passion for cranes into action, converting the Sauey family's horse farm in Baraboo into a reserve for breeding, research and conservation.
Forty years later, the foundation continues to lead and support conservation programs, research projects, breeding and reintroduction efforts, and the restoration of wetlands and grasslands on five continents.
And while the foundation's focus may seem narrow, its effect is anything but small. The foundation has long believed one of the best ways to restore and protect crane populations is by engaging communities in conserving the habitats the cranes live in. This has led to the restoration of ecosystems around the world, which in turn has positively affected other species, as well as humans.
Wisconsin is home to two crane species: the sandhill crane and the rarest of cranes, the endangered whooping crane. As recently as the 1940s, less than 20 whooping cranes existed. Thanks to extensive work by the ICF and one of its founders, Archibald, the population is now nearing 600 and climbing. This year, the ICF hatched 11 whooping cranes, nine of which will be released into the wild as part of the organization's direct autumn release program.
The unique program is being documented by Tom Lynn, a former Journal Sentinel photographer, who is following the chicks from their birth to their release. Last year, Lynn documented the ICF's prairie restoration work, creating the stunning "Bloom" photo exhibit on display through October in the foundation's education center. Follow Lynn's "Hatch to Release" project on his blog.
Don't miss: Give yourself plenty of time to explore the grounds — at least three hours. A guided tour, which lasts about two hours, is the best way to learn about each of the crane species and ask questions of the knowledgeable guides and naturalists. Tours are offered daily at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day, and on weekends in April, May, September and October.
After the tour, stop by the education center to see "Bloom" as well as other interactive exhibits, including a crane chick cam, which provides a live look at the 11 whooping cranes being reared by the staff. The small chicks grow an astonishing inch every day and are ready to be released into the wild in just five months.
Don't leave without taking a stroll on some of the nature trails.
"It's so peaceful," Fitzwilliams says. "It's one of the most beautiful walks in the area." The trails are well-maintained, and on a recent weekday visit I had them to myself during a brief afternoon hike.
When to go: The campus is open to the public daily April 15 through October 31, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Summer is a great time to see the prairie in full bloom and avoid school groups that visit for field trips in spring and fall. "But if you love cranes," Fitzwilliams says, "spring is always exciting, because they're mating and are excited to see people." Fall, she adds, of course brings its own beauty to the prairie with the changing leaves.
While you're there: See the former winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus at Circus World, which also boasts the world's largest collection of authentic circus wagons. 550 Water St., Baraboo; (608) 356-8341.
Chase a slice of pizza with a local brew at Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co. The restaurant and microbrewery also sells six-packs of its popular Rustic Red and Honey Ale to take home. 110 Wisconsin Dells Parkway South, Wisconsin Dells; (608) 254-1122.
Stock up on hand-dipped chocolates, taffy and other treats and watch the candy being made in an open-view kitchen at Swiss Maid Fudge. 743 Superior St., Wisconsin Dells; (877) 305-7771.
How much it will set you back: Admission is $9.50 for adults, $8 for seniors (62 and older) and students (with valid ID), $5 for kids ages 6 to 17 and free for those 5 and younger. Tours are included with the admission price.
Family memberships to the ICF are $50. In addition to supporting the organization's work, membership benefits include free admission and a behind-the-scenes look at areas normally off-limits to the public during the annual Member Appreciation Day.
Getting there: The ICF is at E11376 Shady Lane Road, Baraboo, about a two-hour drive from Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 12.
More info: (608) 356-9462, savingcranes.org
Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.
Updated: April 11, 2014
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