Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Phantom Pepper Jack

Where is PJ? Seriously.

He showed up on November 21st at the refuge. Where was he for 20 days? I don’t know. Around.
After arriving at the refuge he hung out with various groups of whooping cranes: first a young couple that fly back and forth from the refuge to cornfields nearby. After that, he was with an older couple that hangs out only on the Refuge. That couple had a nest this year, but no chicks hatched. Next we saw him with the other DAR chicks! I was happy that he had reunited with the others. I hoped he’d stay with them and finally migrate with the rest of the group.

No such luck. On the morning of migration (the day all the birds poured out of the refuge like water out of a leaky bucket) PJ and Roquefort were nowhere to be seen. We thought they left together, but they didn’t. Roquefort showed up in Indiana 2 days later (Thanksgiving morning) with 4 adult birds (I’ll write more about this quintet later) with no sign nor peep from PJ.

I was driving down back roads west of Indianapolis the day after thanksgiving, and who do I hear? Yup, PJ. I was shocked. We hadn’t heard from him in 3 days! He was to the north west of me, but there was no good way to get there. While I was trying to get closer, his signal faded away into radio silence.

We even sent out a plane. Anne, my boss at ICF, went out with a receiver and flew over the entirety of Indiana. Not a blip.

It’s funny how he only shows up now and again. It’s as though he’s showing off his independence by not following other cranes; by avoiding even the trackers. I think we need a PTT on this bird. He’s probably in Ohio, or even worse… West Virginia. (That is only worse because the migration route runs from Florida to Wisconsin, and West Virginia is NOT on the way.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Migration log number ONE

They Migrated!!! Not everyone; just a few. Havarti (my favorite), Queso (my Christmas bird), and Feta (the pretty one) took off from Wisconsin, and landed in Iowa.

Attempting to follow flying birds is so exhilarating.

Actually, we’re not supposed to be following the birds. We are supposed to stay ahead of the birds. This way, if we need to stop for gas or food or a quick trip to the facilities, the birds will still be flying towards us. If the stop takes a little bit longer, we could still hear the tail end of their signal in front of us. This is very good practical sense.

 In practice, though, I found it a little difficult to stay in front of the birds. I got up there a few times, but because the birds kept flying slightly west, I had to keep cutting west, too. Eventually I lost the birds in the hills. There were no north-south roads, so I was zigging through valley trails. Dirt and gravel roads don’t allow for speed, and being at the bottom of the valley isn’t conducive to listening for radio signals.

I kept driving south until dusk hoping to catch up to the birds, but I never caught a signal. At sunset I stopped to walk around a little, fuel up on gas, get some food, and make a plan for the night and next day to find those birds.

I knew they couldn’t be far. The last little blip I heard was around 4pm. Sunset is around 5:45, and I’m sure the cranes landed a little before that so they could eat.

Well, I drove around for a couple hours after dark, and I didn’t hear a thing. Nothing but static came over the radio. When I dejectedly began my search for a hotel, there were none available! It turns out that the beginning of deer/gun season books up every hotel and motel for leagues. After driving around for an hour from motel to hotel, I wised up and sat down with my computer so I could call around for vacancies. Note to self: always do this. I got the last vacancy at a cute little dive motel.  The room wasn’t stellar, but the sheets were clean and the owner lent me an alarm clock from the fifties (I had to figure out how to work it).

In the morning, I woke up at 6 am, made my plan: I was going to follow up the Mississippi in Iowa to see  if the chicks landed there. They did!! Oh my gosh, they did!!! I startled at the first beep as though the dead started walking again.

After getting a visual, I positioned myself on a hilltop to the south. That way if the chicks started flying again, I’d already be south of them and ready to roll.

Well, they haven’t left yet. I like to check on them once an hour just to be sure they are safe. It may not be Iowa’s deer/gun season yet, but it IS bird/gun season. There are a LOT of hunters out there. I can hear a gunshot almost every 5 minutes, and usually several rounds going off at one time.

During one of my hourly checks, I discovered my chicks weren’t alone out here in Podunk (for whooping cranes) Iowa. 13-03 and 18-03 were out there in the cornfield with my chicks! I can’t believe this. 13 & 18 started migrating only yesterday and what are they doing out here? It’s understandable that the chicks might fly southwest. They’ve never flown south before. Adults, though? They’ve been flying since 2003. Weird coincidence that they should happen to meet up in an unlikely place. Let’s just hope the chicks stay with the adults long enough to find their way back east.  I’m so proud of them, regardless of flying slightly off the proscribed track.

And here's a gratuitous kitty picture. He was hunting in front of my van, so I couldn't resist taking pictures. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Miscellaneous or Preparing for Departure

We've been monitoring the chicks every day. We wake up with them at the dawn

We watch to make sure they go to sleep safely

Sometimes one will trick us. Feta roosted far away from the group last week. She roosted 1/4 mile south of the East Rhynearson Marsh where the chicks normally roost. When we went out to check on her in the morning, she had flown back to the others sometime during the night! How does a bird see enough to fly at night? 

Both Aubrey and I thought we heard Pepper Jack's signal early in the morning this past week, but once we started following the signal, it drops away. I hope we'll hear something about him soon. Maybe the DNR will catch a visual of him on one of their tracking flights, but I don't know how often they go out flying.

Goat has been improving. He's been seen with 11-02 and 30-08 (The jones') more often. Just this week, Fontina was hanging out with those 3 as well. Once I saw Fontina and Goat fly over to where the other chicks were. I have strong hopes that Goat will reunite with the others or at least follow 11-02 and 30-08 down on migration.

Our tracking vans are going through some rigorous inspections before going on migration. It doesn't stop the wildlife from enjoying them while they are around, though.
After a couple of weeks trying to capture wild birds so we could replace non-functioning transmitters, my supervisors finally decided it was time to get me trained at holding birds. Taffy took me around crane city at ICF and we picked up several birds like this brolga. I have a feeling that holding captive birds is only somewhat like holding wild cranes. I anticipate the wild cranes are more aggressive: they'll peck, jump rake, dodge and weave. Maybe the wild cranes will just run away. Either way, I feel a little more prepared for whatever comes my way. I'm glad I was able to get some practice in before I leave.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chick Update!

All the chicks have happily settled into a routine. They fly everyday from Necedah Refuge to the cornfields south of the Refuge. They fly back every night to roost in the water. They've ingratiated themselves with 6-05 and 6-09 who showed them the ropes.

Goat has been released!! although he's separated himself from the other chicks :(  I hope they overcome their differences soon. Either that, or I hope he finds some adults to migrate with.

On the plus side: the chicks don't seem to mind hanging out with Sandhills anymore. They used to be very scared of sandhill cranes. Lately they've not only been seen near the cranes, but they've been seen defending their foraging space against the other cranes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pepper Jack's Jaunt to Independence

Oh Pepper Jack,

If only you would stay with the other chicks. There's something called safety in numbers, you know. When you go haring off into the hills it's hard for us to find you.

Your independent streak has always instilled in me pride and exasperation. I'm proud of you for taking these steps to beging flying south on your own, I only wish you had exercised caution and waited to fly south with other adult whoopers, or maybe with your cohort.

Wherever you are, I hope you are safe. Never fear, we will continue searching for you. We will be looking for you on our way down with Migration. We will be looking for you by plane. We will continue looking for you once we've reached the south. I hope you find plenty of food and good tail winds.

All my love,