Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tracking Paynes Prairie

View from boardwalk, La Chua Trail 
I LOVE tracking Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park! Located on the southern end of Gainesville, Florida, it is one of those local treasures that really gives back to the community. The whooping cranes are often found off of the La Chua Trail, so I pay my $2 entrance fee and set off with body loaded down with tracking gear. Luckily the trail is only a mile and a half long, so in all, I'm only carrying 30-40lbs of gear for 3 miles. I think I had heavier backpacks in college.
La Chua Trail
There is SO MUCH wildlife along the trail it's hard not to stop and take pictures so I'm unloading them all in the next couple paragraphs. I'm really excited about this trail, because it's the first time I saw a live, wild alligator up close. Yeah, I was a zookeeper and had very intimate experiences with captive gators, but seeing a wild one is WAY cooler! There are hundreds of them along the ditch banks, so it's hard not to see at least one or two being active/doing something interesting.

my first alligator sighting
 So many trees are covered by spanish moss. When I came to the South, I was saddened by how well the moss is spreading. It seems as though the moss is killing the trees, but after a fellow hiker at Paynes Prairie disagreed, I thought I should look into it. Turns out the spanish moss doesn't necessarily kill the trees, but when it gets really heavy and thick, it blocks the tree's leaves from the light they need for photosynthesis. So now every time I go there, I think, "The South, where spanish moss makes all the trees look like weeping willows."

Giant Oak weeping with spanish moss

There are thousands of birds at the park, and most of them are doing cool behaviors (but I couldn't capture the behaviors without uploading way too much video, so you just get snapshots)
Boat-tailed Grackle, mating call/posture


Grey Heron

Whooping Crane (figures this is the one bird I want to see clearly)

American Coots (or Cutes! seriously, they're adorable)

Turkey Vulture (I love this bird)

American White Ibis

Cattle Egret

There are hundreds of turtles along the trail, too. I'm not positive, but I think the turtles are Florida Cooters. I learned on the Daily Show that there is an annual Cooter Festival down here, very close to Chassahowitzka NWR.

Turtle sunning in his algae bath
Turtle sunning mid-morning
Don't forget about the mega vertebrates! There are free-roaming herds of American Bison, Horses, and Wild Boar on park grounds. I haven't been lucky enough to see the horses, but I've seen the Bison several times. In this bison photo, you can see a little white cattle egret that kept jumping up onto his back and then dropping down to the ground; very entertaining.
American Bison, EAT IT!
This is the first time I've ever seen wild boar. I guess some would think I'm lucky not to have seen them yet. As an avid wildlife enthusiast I think I'm lucky to finally see them. Even better; I saw them with pig-lings.

As you can see, there is a LOT to see at Paynes Prairie. If you're ever in the Gainesville area, please stop in and support this awesome resource.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cranes Arrive at Necedah!!!

Great news! Not only have the first cranes arrived at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (16-04 and his young miss, 4-09, see post script), but the first 2010 DAR bird returned to the refuge last week on Friday!!

The program was a success for Roquefort P. Crane, or 21-10, when he returned to Necedah with his adult mentors, 5-05 and 15-04. They left Hiwassee Refuge, Tennessee, around Mid February. They were next reported in mid-Kentucky at the end of February, and they were next seen in Jackson Co, Indiana, on March first. They made the final legs of their journey during the second week of March to arrive at Necedah NWR on March 11th.

He has returned to 5-05 and 15-04's breeding territory with the couple. So in time he may branch out to other areas.

Last week was still very chilly in Wisconsin. Richard reported when he saw the birds that there was a good snow cover over the ground and much of the water was still frozen. This week is looking a little better with temperatures getting up to 60 degrees. With these warmer temperatures we should see more and more cranes pouring into Necedah and the surrounding areas.

I will catch a flight back to Wisconsin this Saturday, so I'll be able to track the birds returning from their winter sojourns in the south. I can't wait to start tracking regularly, again!

P.S. Aubrey, former fellow DAR intern, noted that it was a little funny that 16-04 and 4-09 were the last to leave in the fall, and the first to arrive in the spring. She and Richard were still tracking them down in the bitter, snowy end of November, and now Richard has the pleasure of tracking them down in the blustery, snowy beginning of march.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Visiting Chassahowitzka NWR

I'm in Florida visiting the Chass (Chaz) Pen where 1/2 of the 2010 Ultralight juveniles are staying. Eva, my field supervisor, stays down here every winter monitoring the juveniles after the ultralight team has dropped them off.

When the juveniles reach the pen, they are banded, and given their final health checks. After that, they are free birds! Though, we DO expect them to stay near the pen for safety. It's an open-top pen so they can fly in and out as they choose. We provide food for them at the pen to encourage them to stay close to the location.

Eva has taken me out to the pen a few times. Someone goes out to check on the birds twice a day. It surprises me how much time and effort is spent on the simple act of getting out to the pen.

Step 1: Attach the airboat and check that the airboat works (gas, trailer lights, hull plugs, engine, etc.)

Step 2: Drive the airboat to the boat ramp around twisty-windy roads, and get her on the water!

Step 3: Drive the boat around twisty-windy water passages until eventually we get to Pen Island (as I like to call it)


Pen Island

Step 4: Dock the boat and check water salinity (we monitor this daily to see what environment the birds are exposed to. Whooping Cranes who winter in Aransas, Texas have similar water salinity levels)

Eva testing Salinity

Step 5: Walk the twisty-windy-rocky island pathway to the observation blind.

Step 6: Suit up and check on the birds. The 2010 juveniles seemed to know we were there (who can blame them? The super-loud boat arrives before every feeding). They were milling around the pen site when we check them from the blind, and then they flew around a bit before landing inside the pen.
Juveniles expecting our arrival just outside the pen

Flying Juveniles

Step 7: Let down the buckets so the birds can feed.

27-08 gets his own bucket on Monday mornings.

Step 8: Check the fence and the voltage on the electric fence to make sure the predators stay out.

This is a great front-view of the blind.

Step 9: Check the birds before we leave

Happy Cranes: after stuffing themselves silly, they are preening in the Florida sun.
Step 10: Return with the boat to our campsite and wash the salt water off the hull and trailer


27-08 returned to the pen site a couple weeks ago. He kept guarding the young crane-lings away from the first food bucket, so we set up a second bucket in hopes that he couldn't guard both. Well, we were wrong. He kept running back and forth between the two buckets keeping the chicks away. Eventually, we decided to put up the buckets so he couldn't have any food, thus removing his 'territory.'  We let down the buckets when the costume is there to keep 27-08 away from the food and he'll get the occasional handout. This way he'll stick around and hopefully lead the chicks back on their northward migration.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Heat Distortion

I saw some Whooping Cranes yesterday! It's difficult, sometimes, to confirm the leg band colors on cranes at a distance. Check out the heat distortion, it looks like a Monet painting.

These cranes were about 1000m from my tracking van. Despite my powerful scope, the heat waves cannot be visually breached. It's a good thing all of these birds had functional transmitters.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Creature Comforts

I'll admit, I'm ready to get off the road. I haven't been able to unpack my backpack in over a month (except on laundry days, but then all my stuff quickly goes back into the bag).

I find myself wanting to stop and purchase things. I'll see a sign for Target and get the urge to stop in and buy a blanket (a nice, soft squishy one). I've been seeking out how to pass by a Lush bath products store.... I don't have room in my bag for extra bath products, and I certainly don't have room on the plane for an extra blanket! I think these urges to purchase items stem from my lack of stability in life. I'm trying to nest without having a place to start building. I just need to remind myself that I will be back in Wisconsin soon. I can live without Stuff for another two weeks. I can make do with sleepingbag, tea, and tiny laptop. All the rest was just clutter, anyway.

Anyway, thanks for listening to me vent. I'm fighting the good fight out here, and I'm hoping to see some cranes soon.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Back on the Road

After a brief jaunt through the Carolina mountains to visit my cousin, John, and my friend, Jim, I am back in business tracking cranes.
Smokey Mountains from the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee, east of Gatlinburg

Since it rained so much in Southern Tennessee, Armstrong Bend was newly covered in pooled water. The cranes took the opportunity to forage around in new areas closer to me. I finally got a good shot of 37-07 and 28-08, the two male whoopers.

I packed up all my gear and said my farewells to Armstrong Bend and Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. I am staying at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama. Lisa, the Wildlife Biologist, promised to take me out tracking/ checking water levels tomorrow. (Note: If you ever have an opportunity to go around a refuge with an employee, DO IT!!! They can take you to all the back corners of the refuge where no one else can go. They also know all the sweet spots where the wildlife can be found.)

I'll be at the refuge for a few days. I'll stay long enough to know if one of our WCEP allies (Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership) will fly over the Tallahassee region. If they DO fly over, that means I don't have to drive over to Tallahassee on my way down to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. If They DON'T fly over, this is my itinerary:

It should take me a few days to track through all those areas. I'll be in Chass next week, just in time to pack up ICF's gear and equipment for the end of the season, loading it on an empty jet flight on the 19th, and unloading it in Wisconsin.

I'm looking forward to a busy week, but I'll try to keep you updated with my findings.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Alternative Monitoring

I'm supposed to be monitoring Whooping Cranes. However, I haven't actually seen a whooping crane in over two days.

Instead of driving blindly around the state, wasting gas (ouch, costly) and time (driving is a mind-numbing activity), I've decided to employ my time being useful to ICF by monitoring the Sandhill Cranes!

We have thousands of Sandhill Cranes at Hiwassee Refuge and Armstrong Bend! I'm spending a couple hours each day scanning the thousands of legs for leg bands. So far, after 3 days of scanning, I've seen one banded crane! I was really excited when it happened, too. It's almost like going through a Where's Waldo book (yeah, I know I've used that reference before when talking about looking for whooping cranes in the snow, but it seems more appropriate in this scenario because there is so much red and white coloring: the sandhills have red caps on their head and they look kind of white when the sun is glinting off their grey feathers).

Even though sandhills aren't endangered, we still study their population size, growth, migration patterns, habitat use, and behaviors. This helps us understand their needs for future habitat management or population management.

Some of the coolest technology we use to help the whooping crane was first tested on sandhill cranes. For example, we learned that costume rearing sandhills prevents the cranes from imprinting on humans and allows them to live a (more) normal life in the wild: finding mates, finding good nesting ground, migrating with other sandhills, etc. We also discovered that the trick of teaching young birds their migratory path by Ultralight plane works with Sandhills as well as Canada geese. After several sucessful sandhill migrations, Operation Migration's work with Whooping cranes was a go.

Sandhills are a fun crane. I love watching them when I'm not watching whooping cranes. Their behaviors are so entertaining, that I could just watch them for hours. Sometimes when they stand around in a group and the wind picks up, a few will jump up sporadically, like popcorn. They will flap up and land. A disgruntled neighbor might peck or challenge the jumper, or it might even jump up in response, continuing the popcorn effect.

Landing sandhills are the most entertaining part of my day. They lower their 'landing gear' seemingly way too early and they hover slowly down in the air in a full standing position with their wings wide spread until they reach the ground, where they backwing to land a little more gracefully.

Photo retouched from ICF mainpage.

I dedicate this post to Kimberly Schmaeman, who has graciously taken care of my house and cats while I'm off gallivanting around the country. She loves Sandhills above all other birds, and wishes to be serenaded awake every morning by their soothing calls. (love you, Kim!)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spring Migration has Begun!

(photo credit: Charles Murray) 21-10, 5-05, and 15-04 in flight at Armstrong Bend

I arrived back at Hiwassee refuge to find only two birds! There were seven two weeks ago.

Before I arrived at Hiwassee, I drove around Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee looking for adult pairs only to be turned away time after time.

Yes, the adults are anxious to get back to their breeding grounds in the north. They each have to stake their claim before the other cranes claim their prime real-estate.

This set me to pondering on 21-10 and the family groups for W1-10 and W3-10. I asked Eva, my supervisor, "What happens to those juveniles that are with the adults? At what point do the adults start distancing themselves from the yearlings?"

It seems as though the juveniles will closely follow the adults on migration all the way back to Wisconsin. Once they get there, the young start wandering further from the adult pair. Thus, it seems separation is a mutual agreement between the juvenile who wants to discover his own grounds/friends, and the adults who would appreciate a little privacy. I like this idea rather than a big showdown between a desperately needy chick and fed-up adults who resort to domestic violence to get their point across.

That said, 21-10/5-05/15-04 have recently been seen in Kentucky! I'm sure the northward moving birds are hitting the wall of snow that still encapsulates the northern states.

The large group with 11-02/30-08 and 3 DAR juveniles (19-10, 25-10, 27-10) has left Alabama, but we haven't received any reports of their whereabouts.

23-10 and 26-10 remain in Georgia (still alive! I stopped in to find them last week). They probably won't start migrating until mid-March. The juveniles don't have anything to rush back for: they don't have to claim territory or build nests. Whooping cranes females don't start laying eggs until they are 3 years old.

Pretty soon, the 2010 ultralight juveniles will start their migration. Eva and I will be tracking the Ultralight group rather than the DAR group, because it will be the Ultralight group's first unassisted migration, and we want to monitor them to:

1. make sure they stay on the proper path
2. see where they stop over and
3. report their progress to WCEP

Spring migration will begin soon!
21-10 and 5-05/15-04 in pre-flight stance