On a staggered schedule, groups wound their way around nearly 10 acres of new exhibits Saturday to see the results of the International Crane Foundation’s $10 million renovation on its first day open to the public since closing in late 2018.
Barbara Streber, DeForest, brought her sister, Ellen Curtin, and brother-in-law Daniel Curtin, visiting from Kentucky, to the Baraboo wildlife center Saturday. Streber said she’s been a member for many years.
“What I see, which is lovely, is that all of the bird pairs have a water setting now, and they didn’t have that before,” Streber said of the renovated site. “They were taken care of, but they were in kind of a caged, chute, long area and you got to see them, but this is so much more enjoyable for us and for the birds that they all have water, and it’s beautiful.”
ICF’s headquarters is the only place in the world where visitors can see all 15 of the world’s crane species, many of which are endangered or considered vulnerable. The nonprofit also works across the world to conserve cranes and their habitats.
When visitors first arrive, they can see the outdoor sandhill crane exhibit and its two birds, Groot and Rocket, from inside the brand-new George Archibald Welcome Center. Communications director Pamela Seelman said planners wanted sandhills at the start because they are the species that are most familiar to North Americans and they have an “incredible comeback story” since almost going extinct in the late 1940s.
A one-way paved walking path leads three-quarters of a mile around the sprawling campus to separate areas for pairs of each species, educational displays, art and cultural features and 2 miles of nature trails.
Despite three species currently sitting on eggs — the demoiselle, white-naped and Eurasian cranes — ICF staff said they won’t necessarily result in chicks. Each species has a water feature and an interior space where they retreat to get away from spectators or bad weather.
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the center is requiring visitors to reserve timed-entry passes in advance at least through May and June, Seelman said. Reservations can be made at savingcranes.org. There are three slots every 15 minutes for groups of up to 10 people each, at a total capacity of 960 people per day. ICF is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 31.
Seelman said ICF is not offering guided tours at this time but is hoping to start them again eventually, depending on the COVID-19 situation. Docents are stationed at various locations on site, she said.
Before closing for the $10.4 million construction project, the wildlife center drew up to 20,000 guests each season, including school tours, according to Seelman. It was originally expected to reopen by summer of 2020, but the pandemic led ICF leaders to keep it closed until Saturday. Opting instead for a phased reopening, they haven’t held a grand opening or celebration event.
Madison couple Bill and Nicole O’Connell said they’ve been wanting to visit ICF for several years and were excited to book a slot Saturday. They brought their two children, 5-year-old Finn and 8-year-old Sophia, who said she’s always been interested in hawks, bald eagles and cranes. Sophia took notes, reading from the informational displays.
“Even though we’ve learned a lot about sandhill cranes because of where they live near our house, I’m still really excited about how — what the chicks do after they’ve hatched,” she said.
Saturday was also Daniel Curtin’s first time visiting ICF.
“I think it’s really nicely done. Obviously, the work they’re doing is important” but it’s also displayed clearly, he said. “It’s a beautiful facility. We love to go to zoos and parks and things, but this seems like a really particularly nice one, especially given it’s so specialized.”
Visitor Services Coordinator Demetra Toniolo said the center was able to accommodate a few walk-ins because of some open slots on its first day.
“I think it’s been wonderful,” Toniolo said. “I think guests are really, really excited to see the new exhibits, there’s more space for the birds and more space for people, so there’s plenty of room to social distance and safely see all the cranes of the world here at the International Crane Foundation.”
Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.