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Grays Lake – Home of the World’s Largest Sandhill Crane Nesting Population

By Bill Schiess

Songbirds like the Mountain bluebird has also benefitted with the creation of the Grays Lake NWR.
With from 250 to 320 nesting pairs of Greater Sandhill cranes, Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern Bonneville County, can be noisy but beautiful scenes in the fall as the large birds prepare to migrate south. September and October are the usual months for the gathering of the cranes on the refuge for their migration to Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico.

They usually arrive in early April where they dance and carry on as the young ones try to attract a mate. While the old ones usually already have mated for life, they still dance and sing letting their mate know how lucky they are to have them as a companion.

Grays Lake is not a lake at all, but is a large shallow marsh that has very little open water. In the center of the marsh is a large island called “Bear Island” with no land access. Human entry is prohibited on the refuge from March 31 until September 20, with the northern half of the refuge available for hiking from September 21 through March 30.

The best times to visit the refuge are spring, early summer and fall as by mid-summer the vegetation is too high to observe much and the winters are usually bitter cold with few species available to observe.

Raptors roost on any high point looking for careless prey to show themselves.
Grays Lake was named after a mountain man, John Grey, who was part of a trapping expedition that explored the area in 1818. Part of the Oregon Trail runs along the south side of the refuge, then in 1906 much of the water was diverted to a different watershed for irrigation. The conservation-minded federal government took control of over 18,000 acres in 1965, establishing a refuge for the primary objective of providing habitat for geese and ducks. Many other nesting shorebirds and songbirds benefitted with the protected lands. Plans now are in the works that will more than double the protected area.

Large colonies of Franklin’s gulls, grebes, White-faced ibis along with the elusive American bitterns and rails nest in the marsh grasses. At the edge of the marsh songbirds like the Mountain Bluebird, the Idaho State Bird, can be seen nesting and raising their young during the summer. Raptors hunt the marsh for careless birds and rodents. Moose, elk, deer and coyotes are just some of the wild animals that can be observed.

The arable land on the refuge is farmed for the benefit of the wildlife. Fields of grain are raised as food for migrating birds with hay cutting and pasturing utilized to control the tall grass. In the spring controlled burning of the tall bulrushes and cattails allows better nesting and food habitat for all wildlife.

Travelers should be aware that there are no services at Grays Lake. The nearest services are at Freedom, Wyoming (20 miles away) and Soda Springs, Idaho (30 miles away).

But to many people, Grays Lake means the Greater Sandhill cranes. With their mating shows, that may include chucking dried cow pies at each other, to their conditioning early fall flights high in the air, these intriguing birds are as entertaining as anything one can find.

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