The only cranes visible for the International Crane Foundation’s “evening with cranes” were the heavy equipment that slashed the skyline over the foundation’s in-progress expansion project
With one exception: Slidell.
As several hundred guests at “An Evening With the Construction Cranes” — which raised fund to support the foundation’s crane and conservation efforts — took self-guided tours of the $10 million improvements, Slidell, a female grey crowned crane, strutted about, and sometimes posed for photos.
The chatter of another grey crowned crane, Houdini, could be heard now and then. But Cyndie Gitter, the foundation’s assistant curator of birds, said Houdini is not as comfortable in the presence of people as Slidell, who was reared by a male keeper, which is why she’s more at ease around men than women.
Other than Slidell — and the calls of invisible birds, which some birdwatching guests identified as red-headed woodpeckers — the evening was decidedly free of fowl.
Alice Reigel, project assistant for the Madison-based builder Vogel Brothers Building Company, said the all the construction activity is disturbing to the birds. That’s why many of them remain in their indoor quarters, called Bird City, she said.
But when the project is done, she hopes, the birds will love it, and so will the people who come to see them up close.
Take, for example, the concrete walkway, at least 10 feet wide.
It was just finished the day before the event, and offered pedestrians a smoother route past the cranes’ wetland habitats.
The project, which began last fall, includes 10 updated crane exhibits and a new visitors’ center. The exhibits are closed to the public during construction.
A small amphitheater, where visitors could view the habitat of wattled cranes, isn’t new, but the under-construction housing for the birds is, said Debby Capener of Portage, a volunteer naturalist.
“They’d get too skittish,” she said, to explain the absence of the wattled cranes. “They’d be upset by the construction. Besides, they don’t have houses yet.”
Where the walkway ended, a dirt and gravel path took visitors to the construction sites for housing for various crane species.
Artist Jay Jocham, who lives in Adams County, used eco-friendly water-based acrylic paint to present, on a 135-foot concrete wall, a huge flock of cranes gathering near Izumi in southern Japan.
According to japanvisitor.com, between 10,000 and 12,000 cranes of at least four species gather each winter on reclaimed coastal land near Izumi, where visitors come from miles around to see the birds roost in the shallow waters of rice fields flooded just for them.
Jocham said he used photographs of the scene to create the mural — one of seven (six new, plus one existing mural) that will be key parts of the visitor experience at the International Crane Foundation.
Sue Bradley of rural Portage, a volunteer naturalist, said the scene, as spectacular as it is, represents a concern, because the unexpected outbreak of a disease or other threat to the cranes at Izumi could decimate the birds’ population — which is why more habitat is needed, worldwide.
In the distant background of the construction area — but not yet ready for foot traffic — the new George Archibald Welcome Center, named for one of the foundation’s co-founders, could be seen.
Volunteer naturalist John Kalson of Sun Prairie said the visitors’ center will be well worth the walk to get to it, because it will feature an area for viewing of sandhill cranes.
Reigel said she is amazed that the construction project was able to continue through one of the worst winters in memory, which included, at the end of January, a life-threatening polar vortex.
The project is on budget, she said, and on track for completion in time to reopen the crane exhibits next year.
If the cranes were absent in body, they were present in spirit.
Among the numerous refreshments offered to visitors: crane-shaped cookies from Baraboo’s Neat-O’s Bakery.
Bianca Sicich, an intern with the foundation’s field ecology department, set up a table near the refreshment area to show the tools that the foundation uses to study cranes in their natural habitat.
For example, at a habitat near Briggsville, nesting cameras are used to capture images every 5 minutes of sandhill cranes, to see how they fare in nesting.
And, at Horicon and Necedah, some rarer species of cranes have joined the sandhills, offering an opportunity to fit the birds’ legs with devices that monitor their movements.