BEST PLACE TO SEE A SANDHILL CRANE - 1999
Carlos Avery is only a 45-minute jump from the Cities, making it the nearest state wildlife area owned by the Department of Natural Resources. The drive is, without a doubt, worth it: Carlos Avery, which has been owned and managed by the state since the 1930s, is a paradise of wetlands and wiregrass marsh that attracts all sorts of wildlife, including migrating sandhill cranes. Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet; fossil records date back ten million years. Contemporary bino-bearers have long admired the graceful pas de deux spindly legged crane couples perform, whether in the heat of spring courting or just to stoke old-mate fires--bowing, leaping, and prancing with outstretched wings, as if plagiarizing directly from the Astaire-Rogers dance book. Several pairs of sandhills--large and slate-colored, with distinctive red Zorroesque masks--have feathered their nests in Carlos Avery. The preserve is 23,000 acres in all, so to find the pairs, you should head out into the marshes at dawn and listen for what ornithologists know as "the unison call"--a haunting trill that allows them to find each other in the tangle of reed grass and undergrowth they love most. Peak migration time for cranes is from early to mid-April, and they skip town beginning in early September; if you get hooked on the bird doings at Carlos Avery, you'll want to put October in Norman County, in northwest Minnesota, on your calendar, when thousands of sandhills congregate there to begin the journey south.