Report on the 2010 Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival By Lee Sterrenburg

The first annual Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival at Goose Pond FWA on March 5-6 2010 went sensationally well considering the weather and the road conditions during the previous two to three weeks. The weeks prior to the Festival had seen rain, rain, and more rain. The roads had been in the worst shape ever since the start of the WRP easement in 2000 (except of course when they were under water). Greene County had barricaded off CR 100 S at Beehunter Marsh, the prime viewing spot for seeing most cranes. Many roads on and near GPFWA were a sea of mud and had been un-drivable except for high-rise 4X4 vehicles, and even if you could use a high-rise pickup you were doing massive further damage to the roads.

Days of heroic grading on the property roads by Goose Pond FWA Property Manager Brad Feaster’s crew (not by the County), plus a temporary few days of relative drying (or at least no more rain), plus some overnight freezing, made roads at least passable enough. The main day of Marsh Madness on March 6 was beautiful, clear skies all day, temperature low 50s F, and importantly a shift to light SE winds after days of prevailing north winds. Many cranes departed north on Saturday morning. But there was also a major influx of arriving Sandhills coming from the south. In the evening at Beehunter Marsh, Brad Feaster and Lee Sterrenburg tallied a conservative 11,200 Sandhills flying into Unit BH5N for the night. This was a new property high count for Sandhill Cranes and doubled the previous high count for the species. It was a magical moment.

All the activities at the Park went very well. I counted 131 people at the Chili dinner on Friday evening not including the Rotary cooks and servers. I understand somewhere over 140 tickets were sold for the dinner. We had some 600 admissions at the Roy Clark Building on Saturday for the many and various activities. I even nearly filled the room for my afternoon powerpoint presentation on the birds of Goose Pond FWA (I would have gone birding instead if I had been attending). All the activities basically filled up. The youth bird feeder and nesting box building venue was a beehive of activity when I poked my head into that building.

The fact that the Hardy Lake Raptor Center kept their raptors out perched on display during much of the day and not just during the TWO one hour active demonstrations was huge, and this kept the traffic at the trade and craft show flowing all day long. Plus people had to walk past the crafts to get to the raptors. The craft vendors I talked to said they did quite well–by no means always the case at such events. The quality of crafts was surprisingly good.

The numerous tour bus and auto tour stop birding guides did a great job assisting people to see cranes. Some visitors had never looked through binoculars or a scope before. Seeing cranes through a scope was a revelation to them. The expert birder turnout at GPFWA whether for the Christmas Bird Count or Marsh Madness or other events has always been amazing, and almost all of them are commuting in from somewhere else (Bloomington, Indianapolis, Vincennes, etc.). A fair number of Festival participants got to see Whooping Cranes at a distance in addition to the many Sandhill Cranes.

John Hert at the Grill on the Hill at Triple H Gun Club reported that the restaurant was basically filled to capacity from 11 AM to 4 PM. The Grill seats around 160 people if full. The Grill was the major place to eat without driving back into Linton.

All members of the Marsh Madness Steering Committee had their various events and responsibilities play out very well. A huge amount of work paid off.

I expected much worse than we got. Even three days ahead of the event nobody could have predicted it going as well as it did. I’ve been leading trips or birding at GPFWA during the first week in March since 2002 and I can only recall one day weather wise that rivaled this one for great weather conditions, and on that day Cranes were departing north in massive numbers and not coming back. The fact that we hit the first light south winds in days and that spring was almost a week late meant that Sandhill Cranes were just arriving rather than doing a major push out. We had the most Sandhills in GPFWA property history on Saturday.

It is like hitting a really big Northern Saw-whet Owl night (hearing them, not banding them). On my experience that happens maybe once every 10 to 20 years. On a night a couple of years ago I tied my all time personal high count for Northern Saw-whet Owls. It was 20 years later to the day since I had first set my personal record. Ross Brittain and I once calculated it takes some 12 separate variables all basically falling in place at once. Every once in a while, if you keep going out, everything falls in place. For the Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival that fortuitous concourse of events happened on Saturday, March 6 2010. Everything fell in place, and the Festival was a great success.

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