Grays Lake National Refuge

The sun sets over Grays Lake.

The sights and sounds of Grays Lake are overwhelming for visitors. More than 200 pairs of greater sandhill cranes nest among the handful of cattle operations around the marsh. The cow pies provide bugs and nutrients for the birds. The cows also consume grass keeping it short enough for colts --baby cranes -- to wander about the blades of green. “We have some up there by the house in that field of mine,” says Ray Ostler, Grays Lake rancher. “We watch them dance and flutter around.” When the eggs hatch, Ostler says the chicks come alongside their parents to hide.

Tracking colts is a real challenge because the cranes prefer to keep their distance. Sometimes slopping through soggy swamps to document a nest can turn from achievement one day to abandonment the next. “It’s expected this time of year,” says Dick Sjostrom, former Grays Lake refuge manager. “If you look at 50 nests, you may find 15 or 20 with problems as far as success.”

In addition to the resident nesting pairs, more than 2,000 cranes migrate to Grays to spend the summer in North America’s largest hardstem bulrush marsh. “It’s just the right mix of habitat for greater sandhill cranes,” Sjostrom says. “Traditionally it has always been a productive place for cranes. There is a lot of food out there for them and they have security.”

A small group of cattle at Grays Lake National RefugeBack in the 1980s, scientists tried to take advantage of that security by using Grays Lake refuge to boost the population of endangered whooping cranes, a close cousin of the sandhill. Researchers put whooper eggs into the nests of sandhill cranes and sure enough the adult cranes acted as foster parents, hatching and guiding young whooping cranes on their migration south.

But scientists couldn’t get whoopers to breed at the refuge, so the innovative experiment finally ended, leaving the land to the sandhills.

Grays Lake NWR bird checklist