Grays Lake has got to be the most under-rated National Wildlife Refuge in the country. Throngs of birders trek to Nebraska in the winter to watch sandhill cranes dance. In just a few hours, I got to see them see them dance, tend chicks and browse in a big flock in a lush, green Idaho summer. The refuge threw in some bonus species, too: a mule deer with three fawns, plenty of non-timid hawks, a marmot family and a moose cow with her calf.
Grays Lake is the biggest Sandhill Crane nesting site in the U.S., but it only gets about 1,000 visitors a summer. That’s surprising given its sweet location halfway between Yellowstone and Salt Lake City (the closest airport to the park with direct flights from the east coast). But it’s amazing to have the 18,000 square foot marsh seemingly to yourself with a flock of cranes. You mainly just drive around the giant marsh and watch the birds on the inside.
I felt like my husband David and I saw and talked to most of the people on the refuge that day, including some friendly people at the headquarters, a researcher and her friends and a rancher, who let us walk out onto his field. He said he doesn’t know why the state lets people hunt the cranes; he prefers to take pictures of them.
We were hoping just to see one, but we probably saw 50 – 100. One pair danced. It’s too late for mating season. When we later visited the Beartooth Nature Center in Montana, they explained that people used to think cranes just danced as a mating ritual. Now they realize they do it all the time, just for fun. We counted 23 cranes in one group in a field. Another couple already had two chicks — or rather, sandhill crane young are called colts–one of those pedantic terms that is too adorable not to use.
Where to Go See Big or Odd Birds
Go See Wildlife Out West
Practical tips: Grays Lake is on the Pioneer Historic Byway, which claims (along with several other routes) to be the fastest way from Salt Lake to Yellowstone. It’s about a half an hour north of Soda Springs and the charming Enders Hotel and Museum, which has a friendly cafe.