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It’s almost like they knew.

It’s like an internal force, an innate barometer, alerted Southern Illinois wildlife to get out and forage Monday morning. It’s as if they knew that winter would be hitting the region like a sledge hammer later in the day.

Driven by curiosity over reports of sandhill crane sightings at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge over the weekend, I drove down Route 148 early Monday morning. A group of 50-75 Canada geese feeding in the field north and west of the waterfowl blind caught my attention.

But, there was movement in the field well beyond the geese. At first, the cranes were nearly invisible, their gray feathers disappearing into the cloudy horizon. As my eyes and binoculars focused, it became clear a half-dozen of the cranes were gathered for breakfast.

Sandhill crane sightings aren’t rare in this region. On the other hand, this was the first time I had seen these remarkable creatures on the ground in Southern Illinois.

It was an outstanding way to start the morning. But, Crab Orchard still had a lot to offer.

Just beyond Pigeon Creek on Refuge Drive the outline of a massive deer appeared on the north side of the road. The deer was grazing on the side of the road and it took a while for its antlers to come into view.

There was no time to count, but this was at least an 8-pointer, maybe 12.

Another car approached from the opposite direction. The deer looked one way, then the other, before bounding off into the woods. Yet, his retreat seemed more utilitarian than panicked. I felt as if a photo op still existed.

Inching slowly up the road, a small clearing appeared. And, there he stood in full profile. He stood there proudly, almost defiantly. Again, there was little time to count. I kept my eyes trained on the buck as my hand slid across the seat for my camera.

At the sight of the camera, the buck turned tail. This time he bolted deep into the woods. Since that moment I’ve been telling myself that the day was too gray and the deer was too far away for a good photo. That’s what I’m telling myself.

After slipping the car back into gear momentarily, I found myself braking again within 50 yards. There, on the south side of the road, was a flock of 25-30 turkey hens. Unlike the deer, they were non-plussed by my presence or the other vehicle.

They strutted, putted and fed unfettered until I had seen enough.

Still another flock was spotted a mile down the road. They were feeding in tall grass, but occasionally a white head would pop up, like a real-life version of Whack-a-Mole. But, as an added attraction, the head of a doe would also appear.

Finally, the morning was made complete by the sight of four American black ducks. Initially, the ducks appeared to be gadwall, but a closer look revealed the large yellow bills.

I could hardly believe my luck. The sightings were so intense and came with such frequency it felt like strolling through a zoo. They were probably thinking the same thing I was – I’m going to enjoy this nice day while it lasts.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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