Bird brained stories!

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Comeback Cranes

Yesterday morning, after arising at the surreal hour of 4am, I was privileged to see a bird that at one point numbered 15 in the world. The experience is one about which I've dreamed, to the point it made my list of 43 things to do. Yesterday, I got to watch the flight training of juvenile Whooping Cranes.

The Whooping Crane is North America's tallest bird. A wild flock exists already, having been brought back from almost certain extinction numbers of 15 through intense conservation and wildlife management efforts. These birds summer in Alberta Canada and winter at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas. An online birding friend of mine, Ural Donohue, lives in Texas and once shared with me that she saw Whoopers in her back yard, probably en route during migration! I have been jealous of Ural ever since, but after yesterday, my green-eyed monster has been sufficiently fed.

I'm lucky to live about an hour's drive from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, where a second flock of cranes has been reared and trained to migrate to Florida, thereby establishing an eastern flock. This is the fifth year of this program, in which chicks are reared and then trained to follow an ultralight to the wintering grounds. All the previous birds have migrated independently after their first year. Though some have rather independent ideas of where to spend their summers, most return to central Wisconsin. These efforts are supported by Operation Migration, and a visit to their site will let you follow the progress of the birds. I learned that a few days each year, special tours are available to view the flight training. I couldn't wait to sign up.

Only problem was, the tours were all filled by 10am of the first sign-up day, when I was out of the country. I am very grateful to Bobbie Hjelmgren, Education Specialist for the refuge, for arranging three more tours this year. She had to get up early, too! For this kind of experience, along with the important work the Fish and Wildlife Service does, I have no problem paying my taxes.

Arriving right on time, we loaded up the van in the early morning dusk and headed past one of those gates that are locked and say "no public access." I already felt the thrill of the rare and forbidden! We were taken through an oak savannah restoration area that was loaded with Red-Headed Woodpeckers. I've heard one all year. One. To travel through here, one would think they're as common as, well, Common Grackles. We reached a swell in the landscape, into which was built a large viewing blind. Shuffling in, we found our spots.

Mark Nipper, one of the handlers, stopped in to answer questions before heading to the wet pen where the juveniles are housed. He was in his special suit, designed to shield the birds from human contact, and we all got a first hand look at the crane puppets they use to help the birds imprint on a crane likeness. The treat for the day was to be red grapes, fed from the puppet's mouth.

Mark headed down to the pen, and as the day brightened, two large white birds flew in on our right. A pair of adults has been creating problems daily at this training site. They have no desire to practice flying. They've learned that trick already. They're just there to see what kinds of treats they can score! Their presence must be a headache to the handlers, but it made for some entertaining moments as we watched Mark play "dominant crane" to chase them off!
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The specially designed ultralight came in, and all the birds, the youngest fliers of this year, lifted off gracefully, following behind. A couple more practice runs were made, the chicks rewarded, and after some comedy involving adults trying to head into the pen, they were done for the day.

From there, we went to the observation tower to watch for another cohort with more hours of flight time logged. We were rewarded with the sound of calling Whooping Cranes piercing the quiet of the early morning, then a close fly over. Some of the birds blended into the top of the ultralight, creating the illusion of being painted onto the canvas. Bobbie told us this is not desirable behavior, making the pilots more than a bit nervous. No one wants to be responsible for the death of an endangered Whooping Crane, and that close flying puts the birds at greater risk.
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Following this flight viewing, we got a tour through more parts of the refuge that are "off limits" any other time. The sun was trying to peek out behind the bank of clouds, and it picked the most opportune moment to do just that. Slowly, Bobbie took us past a pond with a pair of Sandhill Cranes, a roosting Great Blue Heron, and just behind him....that pesky pair of Whooping Cranes, foraging and preening. Even though it had to be captured through a glass window, this image is one I'll treasure for the sheer beauty of this amazing bird, rising, as it were, from the ashes of near-extinction.
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Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Never Ending Story

At least for me, this seems to be a never-ending story. For the first time in over 15 years, I'm seeing hummingbirds in my yard several times a day. Most of them seem to be the boys, getting fat and sassy before heading down to Mexico to drink tequila-spiked flowers on the beach this winter. Others are reporting an increase in feeder activity this week as well.

Now, if you link over to my still-incomplete list of 43 Things, you'll see that one pines to take a really good photo of a hummingbird. One year, I got a grand total of two photos, period. Last year, as detailed elsewhere on this blog, I managed to snag a pretty nice one, but still not quite what I'd hoped. I figured today is as good a day as any to try and cross that item off my list. I know there are at least four individuals visiting my feeder. Two adult males--I saw them both on the feeder together this morning, unbelievably enough. One female. And at least one immature male.

I started out by sitting on my deck and trying to capture the little beasts. Then I remembered a purchase made last winter--an Outhouse Pack-In Blind, bought by my husband for turkey hunting, with the carrot held out to me that "you could use this for your bird stuff, too."

Not one to sit in a blind, I'd forgotten about it completely, but somewhere in the back of my brain--the part that was procrastinating completing the sermon I have to give tomorrow--the blind reminded me of its existence. Pulling it out, I set it up right in front of the feeders, armed with my enormous lens.

Do you have any idea how many bees can fool you into thinking a hummingbird is moving in? Do you have any idea how hummingbirds, flying into the space in front of your lens and hovering inquisitively, only three feet from your face, can be as frightening as Carrot Top on a bad hair day? One of them did that. Instead of eating, it scoped me out. I thought it was going to fly right into the blind with me. That pointed little beak moving in on a bird flying 60mph can strike fear in me much in the same way as skydiving might. I watched in horror as it came ever closer, camera in hand...and never clicked the shutter!

Once my heart rate had returned to a non-threatening speed, I waited once more. He came. He perched. On the other side of the feeder, peering over the top at me. Ack! Hoping he'd check out all the feeder ports, as they so often do, I waited for him to make that move. Instead, chirping madly, he zipped off into the bushes on the property line, perched, then headed off somewhere to torment someone else for a while.
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That's okay. What I lack in speed, I can make up in procrastination. I'll just sit in this hot thing and wait for one of them to return. They have to return, it's at least a month until they head out for those beaches, and they're only barely pudged out right now. I don't wait too long. He heads in to the side and... least his body can be seen now, if not his whole bill. Wait and try again. And again. In this hot blind. Which blows open the flap anytime I try to create some cross ventilation. The sacrifices we make for art, right?
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I go into the house and finish the sermon, figuring that I'll be rewarded for doing God's work by being provided a perfect view of one of God's jewels. Yeah, right. In my dreams (which happens to be the theme of tomorrow's sermon, as a matter of fact).

Indeed, this time one of the adult males is moving in, perching on the line, then moving in to just the right spot, full frontal view in the sun light and... so close, and he moves behind the hanging post!
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Finally, I decide this is the best I'm getting today. Besides, cloud cover has moved in, resulting in a more comfortable blind, but minimal light reflectivity. That's my excuse, anyway. They'll be back tomorrow...after church, at which time I won't be distracted by the need to ponder the correct order of service and whether I'll mess up completely at some point along the way.

Isn't he a cutie?
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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Lonely little Kildeer

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The river is NOT high.

My younger son has started Drivers Ed, the classroom portion. What does this mean for me? For the next three weeks, I have to drive him to LaCrosse, where he is in class for two hours. Trying to be a good steward of the earth---no one from town with whom he can carpool--I've tried to entertain myself for those two hours, rather than driving back and forth. Today I went to the library. On Monday, I enjoyed coffee at Ajay's Java Joint. Yesterday, however, I went birding.

I headed into the marsh trails from a different direction this time, parking at Red Cloud Park on LaCrosse's north side and wandering down. I chose to bird in an area that was different, just on the north side of the trail bridge, and to the east. Mosquito city!

I keep hoping to spot a Barred Owl in these riverine bottomlands, but it hasn't happened yet. Yesterday there was a lot of woodpecker action, the Downies, Hairies and Red Bellieds all tapping away, making those "yacka yacka" contact calls that always make me smile. A cuckoo was spotted briefly, its long striped tail unmistakeable, but refusing to sing or show its face.

The marsh is drying significantly, in some places reduced to only muck. Just off the viewing platforms, one lone Kildeer and I communed for some time. Every time I moved, I marveled at how well it blends in, even out in the open. All in all, it was a hot and quiet morning on the marsh, or what's left of it.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Accomodating American Avocet Ambles Aimiably

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Praise the birding gods! I have a new bird on my life list!

It had been one of those achingly ordinary days, one filled with hanging laundry, picking up the house and sitting around pretending to be retired, the joy of all with a teaching contract this time of year. Then the phone rang.

"Hi, Gwyn, this is Dan Jackson." It took me a moment to realize who was calling. Dan is another avid birder from the area, one who had commiserated with me on the lack of birding outings due to parenting teenagers.

"There's an American Avocet on the Black River Beach, on Fisherman's Road."

He didn't have to say anymore. I was out the door with my gear, leaving my husband in the dust. Well, lest you think I totally ignored him, I did not. I asked if he wanted to come along, but he had just started changing the oil on the van. So off I went, heading off on the interstate in hopes of not only a year bird, but a lifer.

I pulled up to the small, unguarded beach, where there were a couple boats and a few families with kids enjoying the day. Dan had left by the time I arrived, but I recognized another avid birder, Fred Lesher, lining something up in his camera lens. Knowing he would prefer not to be distracted, I waited, looking across the channel for the bird. When he was finished, I walked over, and he pointed it out for me. It was right in front of us, wading along with the kids and the boats!

Oh boy! I spent the next hour watching it. It took flight a couple times when a dog came running out, but then came back to the shore, wading once more. I snapped away, finally culling my images down to around 30. Don't worry, I'll cull even more. Although the only thing that might have made it better would have been breeding plumage instead of eclipsed, it was still pretty darn cool.

Oh, and while talking with Fred before he packed up and left, we had an Osprey fly over. So, two birds in one day, and one a lifer. It doesn't get any better than this!

Monday, August 01, 2005

I have's the Great Blue Heron

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