DELTON, MI -- The evening sky took on a surreal quality not unlike a scene by Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. A dull gray ceiling had transformed in just a matter of minutes to an explosion of orange, yellow and purple, flooding the lakefront with a post-apocalyptic light.
To add even more drama, there were cranes flying in. Small flocks hung in the sky over the lake, calling in their unmistakable tongue, part trumpet, part purr, part rattle and croak, a language that has fascinated man for centuries.
Standing nearby, bundled up to ward off cold, Tom Funke was counting them on a clicker he held in his hand. A pair of binoculars hung around his neck.
Funke is the director of conservation for Michigan Audubon Society. He and I had come out for the annual state crane count, an event that provides the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a snapshot of migrating crane numbers. The data help them determine the status of the cranes, which are protected under the federal migratory bird treaty act.
Sandhills almost were extirpated in Michigan, having been sought by market hunters for food and by clothiers for fashionable plumage. They were common in Michigan until the 1880s. By 1905, they were nearly gone.