Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nacho's Loss

A few days after release, we discovered the body of Nacho, our favorite. Our first.

It has hit me pretty hard, because there's no way we could have predicted he'd be the first one to go. He was the strongest, he was the leader. He always knew where to forage and where to take shelter. He led the others when flying to new places. He seemed to work well with the adults who were in the area. Nacho was a good bird. By that, I mean he was a fine example of a bird (for all I know about the subject). He wasn't like a pet. Cranes would never be good pets.

We always compared him to the high school quarterback: liked and loved by all: the other chicks, the other adult cranes, us costumes...

Brittani named him Nacho before anyone else had a vote. The name just kinda stuck.

During his first couple of days he was the only chick we had at the chick rearing facility. I was worried that he wouldn't have anyone of the same age. Kelly assured me that even though he was all alone now, just wait, he'd be the most spoiled chick. Maybe she was right, we did spend more time with him.

He was always the first to reach the milestones in a chick's life: the first to be socialized, the first to get real feathers, the first to stay outside, the first to fly.

He was always the chick I relied on to keep the other chicks in line.

I will miss his leadership and confidence. I was hoping to follow his story on the migration south, but I fear his story ends before halloween. They tell us not to get attached, and in some degree I'm not. There's nothing I could've done to prevent that predator... but it doesn't relieve the sadness I feel at his loss. I miss him, and I'll continue to think of him as the chicks journey south on their migration.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chick Release Part 5: The Reunion

Nacho, PJ, and Havarti, who were released in the West side of the refuge managed to split up. PJ was the first to make it back to Site 3 in the predawn light. Nacho flew circles around the East Rhynerson Pool, which is featured here, and was struggling with the wind for only an hour before making it back to site 3 by 9am. Did I mention that there was an epic wind storm that day?

Havarti waited another half hour before taking off and testing the wind. She didn't even bother with the circles. She flew almost directly back to Site 3. That's my little girl :,D

Havarti flying on this crazy windy day straight back to Site 3

The Group in the North reunited. Roq and Ric survived their night in the woods/marsh. They only flew around the North (The marsh up there is called the Sprague-Mather Pool or SMP) that first day. They mostly stayed with 11-03/12-03 and a whole bunch of sandhills. During the next 3 days they surprised us by flying south just to the area where we released the chicks on the west side of the refuge, but didn't fly enough to find site 3. They flew back North that same day and roosted with 11-03/12-03 again.  Finally on Oct 28th, right when we trackers were switching shifts, they managed to fly back site 3. My shift had been about to start: I heard the signals of all 4 birds very faintly, and then I heard nothing. I called up my co-worker who was tracking the south half of the refuge (where site 3 is located), and sure enough. All 11 chicks were reunited at site 3, and they were all hanging out with their usual adult friends, 11-02/30-08 or 'the jones's'.

Chick Release Part 4: The Aftermath

When Nacho, Pepper Jack, Havarti, and Goat finally landed, they landed in water!! I was so proud of them. But I was a little worried that Goat didn't seem to be with the rest of the group. Remember, that I was trying to determine the chicks' locations in the dark by radio signal. I'm not exactly sure where they are, but I can roughly determine Nacho, PJ, and Havarti are in a somewhat larger body of water: a marsh. Their signals are coming back a little "watery" sounding. I'm pretty confident about them, but I'm not sure about Goat. He's nearby.

I tell Richard, who is still driving around trying to pin point their locations. He takes a road to try to get closer to Goat's signal and to see if he can see anything. Well he did find Goat. Goat was struggling and caught in some brambles. His lower bill was slightly broken, and if you've ever trimmed a beak, or clipped a nail to short on any animal, you know there's a lot of blood in those quicks.

Unfortunately it's at this point, while Richard is struggling with helping the bird, that I lose my cell phone. I'm desperately searching around the car for it, knowing that it's ringing A LOT, but not being able to find it. Eventually, my other phone (p.o.s.) got a call out to Marianne, who updated me on the situation.

Marianne will take my vehicle and stay with Richard to help with the medical emergency. She's very experienced with medical issues and handling birds.

I will drive north with Aubrey and the rest of the supplies and search for Roq and Ric who are still in the woods.

Goats story: After Marianne joined with Richard. They managed to wrap his beak back into position. It had been hanging at a 35 degree angle, hinged on the (right?) side. So it wasn't completely broken. There is a chance that it can heal. There is a point on the bird's bill (like a quick) that the beak tissue continually grows from. The birds do a lot of probing and pecking at things, so the bill keeps growing throughout their lives, being worn down, like beaver teeth, by constant use. There is hope. Birds have survived with broken bills before. After Marianne and Richard wrap up his bill, they take him back to site 3 and release him in the night pen so he is safe. Marianne set up a smaller "dry pen" for him so he is not tempted to drink any water or probe for food (we don't want him eating before we take him to see the vet, the next day). The next day, I helped Marianne catch goat and crate him so she can take him back to Baraboo for the vet to examine. We determined that after a week or two of healing, he will be released again. His beak looked really good to me! I was expecting the worst, but it was sitting straight. Though, there was a small millimeter gap between the upper and lower bills at just the very tip, that's better than amazing after such a break as he endured. I think Goat is going to be alright.

Roq and Ric's story: Aubrey and I show up at the same place we released the chicks in the North. Eva's been waiting. It's long after dark by now. It seems like Gouda and Havarti have safely roosted near the adult pair nearby (11-03/12-03, who had a nest and a tiny chick of their own early in the summer, but he didn't survive). Long story short: we walked into the woods and trudged around in the dark autumn swamp the first time without finding anything. We went back to the car, found we had walked into the wrong swamp/woods the first time. We tried it again, this time in the right area, but after another 1/2 hour of trudging, we still didn't find the birds. We determined we needed a hand-held reciever (like in this blog entry) to try to find the birds on foot. Marianne shows up with the working hand held reciever, because it's taken this long and she's done tending Goat. All 4 trudge back out into the woods and lo! There are the 2 birds. I can see them through the trees and sparse brush. Their eyes are glinting in the blinding flash of the headlamps. (Mind, we're all wearing our crane costumes so the chicks don't see humans). Marianne walks closer to them to determine exactly what habitat they are in. Luck is with us! or the chicks have retained their senses. They are standing in marsh. It's a long, skinny marsh that was tucked in the woods in a manner that disguises itself from the human intruder, but the birds must have seen it and followed it back to their current roosting spot. This is additionally great news, because the birds are in water. That means we don't have to catch them up and move them. Whew. What a night.

Chick Release Part 3: The Release

Group 2 (Nacho, Pepper Jack, Havarti, and Goat) did not give us as much trouble as group one being crated up. We had a little trouble with getting goat in the crate, but everyone was settled in the end. It was getting to be around dusk (after 6:00) when we released the chicks on the west side.

Unfortunately, the chicks didn't even walk out of the boxes, this time. We enticed them out with treats, and we encouraged them to walk to the marsh down below the road side. They weren't having any of it. They just kept standing on the road. We got back in the van and tried the previous technique with lights and horns, but the chicks never flew.

At this time, while we were still dealing with the chicks not leaving the road, Eva calls from the north to tell us that Roq and Ric have gone into the woods. The chicks should be roosting in the water, not in the woods. There are many more dangers in the woods, so in previous years we've caught up birds roosting in the woods and physically taken them back to site 3.

Richard and I are left with the West Side Crew while Marianne and Aubrey go to fetch supplies to help Eva in the north (Hip waders, extra costumes, flashlights, a box or 2, medical kit, etc).

Eventually our chicks do fly! I was startled because it is now after dark. I can barely make out their forms in the darkness over my vehicle as they circle around together looking for a place to land.

Yay!! They are released! I've been assigned to stay with these chicks until they land and watch them to make sure they don't rooste in the woods.

Chick Release Part 2: The Release

We started at 3 in the afternoon. It stays dark until 6:30. This gives us 3.5 hours to catch up 8 birds, drive them to their locations, and put them out.

We were delayed a little by the first group of birds (Gouda, Roq, Ric, and Saga). Note: we're still struggling a little to identify the birds with their new bands. We figured it out, though, and separated the right birds from the flock.

They (naturally) struggled against being crated. Saga and Ricotta had been caught up within the past month due to unexpected medical emergencies, so they were the most wary. Eventually, though, everyone was safely crated, and carefully stowed in the van to be relocated.

I'm a little sad that I'll never be so close to them again

To the North! it takes about 20 minutes to drive up there one way. We carefully set the 4 crates side-by-side along the road way. Everyone gets back in the van except 1 person. The 1 person (Richard, my boss) very swiftly lifts all 4 doors of the crates, runs quickly, jumps in the van, and the van drives away!!!

Then, ideally, the birds leisurely stretch their wings and step out of the crate, look at eachother and fly off to their destiny.

Realistically, though, the birds stepped out of the crate, looked at each other, and didn't really know what to do. They stood there in the road. Since these birds have NEVER seen a car before, or really a road, or anything like a human, it's now time to stress the birds out so they have a fear of these things. We don't want them approaching roads, cars, or humans later in life.

Other programs may have humans suddenly appear after release running at the chicks, screaming, opening and closing umbrellas, shooting guns, and generally making a loud ruckus to scare the chicks away. Well we do the same thing, except with the vehicle; honking, flashing lights, driving towards them.

Yay! they flew! Eva (my tracking field manager, and new supervisor once the tracking internship starts) was waiting to stay on these chicks in the north. We, in the van, collected the boxes and booked it back to Site 3 to collect the second group of chicks for release.

Chick Release Part 1: The Planning

This is the day we've been waiting and working for ALL summer. It's going to be an exciting day.

We planned 3 releases:

Gouda, Roquefort, Ricotta, and Saganaki (20, 21, 23, & 28) will be released WAY up in the North half of the refuge [See Map Below]. We planned this out because the North half is a little more dangerous, being mostly mud flats. The predators like bobcats and wolves can run over the flats and pick off a bird more easily than they can run through a marsh. These 4 birds are very strong flyers. We know Gouda and Roquefort tend to stick together. They can also keep Saga in line (he still likes to act up every once in a while trying to get higher on the totem pole). Ricotta was also chosen because she and Roquefort are seen together much of the time. We figure if the group splits up, there's 2 satellite transmitters in the group: also a very good thing.

Nacho, Pepper Jack, Havarti, and Goat (18, 19, 22, 26) will be released  in the West side of the refuge. Nacho and Havarti have been seen together a LOT. Pepper Jack and Nacho have always seemed to get along, hanging out together. Goat was a little questionable, because he always seemed to stay near the costume rather than near the chicks, but we didn't know for sure. Mostly, we wanted to send him away from site 3 because of the seeming preference for the costume. We wanted him to see the greater world and experience something outside of site 3 with the other chicks.

The remaining 3: Fontina, Queso, and Feta (24, 25, 27) include a good mix of birds. They will have a "soft release," which means that instead of being transported to a different area for release, they will just be locked out of the night pen. Effectively, they will be freed to continue the rest of their lives without  but without all the hullabaloo with handlers, crates, and a road trip. Queso and Feta seem to be together a lot, and Fontina is the strongest flyer. Hopefully they will stick together. Even more hopefully: they will leave Site 3 on their own when they discover food is no longer available from the pen and the costume is never coming back.

I've heard it takes about a week for the birds at site 3 to figure out that there's nothing left for them there, so they fly on. I've also heard that eventually all the chicks, no matter where they were released, will find their way back to Site 3. I think we're all hoping that the chicks all meet up again soon.

*Note* the red dot indicating 24, 25, & 27-10 also indicates Site 3: where we raised the cranes and where the other interns and I stayed while we were at the refuge.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chick Update

It's Thursday! but we're not releasing the chicks today. They didn't fly very much yesterday. It may have been because it was cold, rainy, and windy. We want to see the chicks fly more before we release them so we know they are able to fly with the new weight of the bands. We're now talking about releasing the birds next week. Maybe we'll get them out of here on Monday or Tuesday.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Banding Day!

Whew! we had a long day. The chicks were allowed to enjoy their morning in relative peace. Once we herded (enticed with grapes and all sorts of treats) all the chicks to the chick yard we let them relax for a short time before catching them up. We try to make the whole process as quick as possible to reduce stress. We'll pick up the bird, hood the bird (this calms them down), and silently take it to the banding station, which is out of sight of the other birds.
Richard and Marianne banding PJ

The bands are very colorful and we try to make them as light as possible. We try to keep in consideration the weight of the bands so it doesn't interfere with flight. For example, we generally give all the females both radio transmitters and satellite transmitters. This way we can confidently find all the females in our population (it's especially important because they may wander from the path on migration or we want to be able to find a nest if she has one). On of our females, Havarti, is very small. She was too small to wear both the radio transmitter and the satellite transmitter, so we gave one of the larger males (Roquefort) her satellite transmitter.

After getting their new bands, all the birds were busy investigating their legs. They pecked at the transmitter cords, pecked at the new silver 'ankle cuff,' pecked at their neighbors bands. Havarti tried to scratch her neck, but just let her leg fall short of scratching (I think) due to the new weight of the band. Despite all that, she was able to fly out of the chick yard with the others. I'm glad they were able to adapt so quickly. My supervisor was so impressed that we may release the chicks sooner.

We may release as soon as Thursday! yeah, two days! We'll see...

I'm so proud of my chickies today. :-D

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wow! A Rare Sighting!!

This pair hasn't been seen since June!!

5-05 and 15-04 both have transmitters that don't work. This means we can't find them from a distance, and when we're around their territory, it takes some real luck to see their heads over the grass.

I had to take a picture just to show the world I saw them today, they are still alive!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Ready for Release

It's almost time to release the chicks!!!

They flew away from home marsh, today. We weren't sure where they went, but thankfully they came back within an hour or two.

We're going to band them all on Tuesday. It's a big day for them. Once they have their new "jewelry," they'll be released within a week.

Bands are important to us because we can identify the birds from far away. We can easily see the bright colors of the bands through spotting scopes from 1/4 mile away (provided the birds aren't in tall grasses that hide their legs).

Right now we're trying to divvy up the birds into compatible groups. We want the birds to stay together after release so the groups have to get along amongst each other. We also want the chicks who are more curious to be released closer to 'home.' That way we can keep an eye on them more easily in case their curiosity gets them into trouble.

Both groups will be released on Necedah Wildlife Refuge. I've been led to believe the two groups will eventually reunite back at site 3 (familiar territory). I'm hoping they find each other sooner and they stick with their adults 11-02 and 30-08.

It's going to be a very busy and exciting week!

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tracking Beginnings

I'm slowly transitioning into this tracking position, and so far I'm loving it!

They've given me my own van to use (other people can use it, too, of course)

I've been driving it around on refuge and off refuge
Sometimes I drive it around on closed roads. Those "road closed" signs are so unconvincing...

I've been very lucky in finding almost all of my cranes where they are expected. This will probably change once migration starts, but I'm very fortunate to be able to identify their leg bands visually for now while I can still see them close to the road. This cute couple is 11-03 and 12-03. They had a nest earlier in the year, and they had a chick for a while. Unfortunately the chick didn't survive, but the couple has decided to stay in the same area. It's their established territory. They will probably try again next year.

This is the Wood County Family! It's the first time I've seen them, and they were very close to the road eating fallen grain from a harvested corn field. The chick's name is W3-01 (brown). Check out his mother's neck. She has a large bulge in her throat, which means she's been eating.

Feather Coloration Time Lapse!

Well considering that Pepper Jack is almost white, I thought we could explore his color change from July to now. Before July, he barely had feathers (it was more like down), so I didn't include those pictures. Maybe next time I'll do a time lapse of one chick's growth.

Also, since this wasn't pre-planned, the pictures won't be perfectly the same pose or lighting, but you can still see how his feathers have grown longer and the brown has slowly grown out to the tips of the feathers. Pepper Jack is such a beautiful bird.

July 11

July 24

July 28

Aug 16

Sept 11

 Oct 11

Monday, October 4, 2010

NHK Interview

The NHK (Japanese equivalent to the BBC) is touring the refuge this weekend filming different aspects of the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project. They ran into me Saturday morning and asked to do an interview with me on Sunday!

Me? little old me?

They wanted to film me tracking cranes in the van, ask me some questions about the project, and maybe we could find some cranes at the end so they could film them.

Sunday morning I went out tracking, and found a pair that was not even 50 meters from the road (so close you could almost touch them). When I met up with them, they were super excited about the prospect of seeing a pair that was so close. The guys were all super cool and they asked a lot of questions about tracking. I really enjoyed my morning with them. They only asked one hard question:

Why is this data I'm collecting important for whooping crane conservation? Well, I go out and gather data on crane locations. It seems to be most important during the spring and fall migrations (and right before migration, so we know when it starts). It's also very important during breeding season so we know where there might be successful nests. But I'm not really sure why it's important to collect crane location data during mid summer.. maybe so we could possibly do some behavioral analyses in the future. I'm of the general opinion that it's a good thing to collect and publish as much data as possible. If you've got the man power, why not put out as much information as you can? It's hard to convince others of this point of view, though. Many people like to hoard information. I understand its important to keep sensitive information close, like specific locations of birds at the current moment (we may not want any person to know where to find a crane, just in case they had dishonorable intentions).

Anyway, the interview was unnerving, but a really wonderful experience. I think I need more practice at speaking in front of the camera.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A crazy morning

 I had a wonderful morning working with the chicks! I've had very little quality time with them, lately, so it was refreshing to see them being so playful. Above, you can see Nacho walking on the night pen flight netting while Ricotta is investigating from underneath.

Below, either Pepper Jack or Gouda is taking off from inside the day pen. He then flew out to the north field to forage with the adult cranes, and flew far off to the north with the whole group.