Monitoring Whooping cranes has its interesting aspects. You get to watch the interactions between adults and chicks and their daily comings and goings. Despite the legions surrounding the call of the wild and the freedom of flight, we have learned that the life of a wild bird is actually very boring.
Still, there are enough surprises and unexpected changes to keep us entertained. Some times I feel like a spy, sequestered in the truck staring through binoculars while listening to the beep of James Bond surveillance equipment and capturing photographs to augment my report to HQ. I told you I was bored.
For a while we followed the drama of 5-12 who spends summers here. After losing a mate late last fall, he finally caught the eye of 8-14 this summer. They were together until 4-13 lost his mate in Marquette County and came over to steal his.
Poor, dejected 5-12 hung around for a while but after being dumped twice, likely decided it was time to migrate or at least get a head start. He is currently in Columbia County, WI.
Maybe in bird society, migration is more than just a way to find warmer weather and a fresh food supply. Perhaps, when the pressures of poking in the same old mud get to be too much, migration is like a biannual, social cleansing. You don’t have to suffer those awkwards encounters with old girlfriends and the men they chose over you. Just check your built in compass, spread your wings and head south. New latitude, new peer group. I told you I was bored.
Meanwhile, his old mate (8-14) and her new boyfriend (4-13) are still hanging around. Often I get strong signals from them at the same roosting site used by the parent reared chick (30-16) and his new alloparents (4-12 & 3-14). For a few days now I haven’t been able to find them during the day. Nor did Wisconsin DNR pilot Mike Callahan get a hit on them when he flew over mid-morning on Wednesday.
As well as visual contact and locations for most of the birds, Mike also reported some sad news. He spotted the carcass of female number 1-15 in Rock County, WI.
If you followed our migration last year, you may recall the struggle between females 1-15 and 2-15. Both were dominant females with opposite personalities. Number 2-15 was quirky with a short attention span who bopped all around the aircraft, disturbing the order we worked so hard to establish. Number 1-15 was her self-appointed disciplinarian and at least once, brought the flock back to the aircraft when number 2-15 led them astray. She was my favorite bird. Damn!!
Our ambition this year is to concentrate on parent rearing. Part one took place at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and at the International Crane Foundation here in Wisconsin where the chicks were raised by real Whooping crane parents.
Part two happens in the field where the chicks are released in the company of experienced Whooping cranes, which we hope will teach them the ways of the wild and how and where to migrate.
That is a lot to ask of what could be a short interaction. The chicks are still young and impressionable and would normally not be on their own for another five or six months. Additionally, Whooping cranes are not colonial birds like Sandhills. They don’t gather in large flocks and are therefore less accepting of strangers. If the chicks don’t integrate with their own species, the next best option is that they go with Sandhills, who at least could teach them safe roosting practices and what to be fearful of. At worst, they could identify with Sandhills leading to confusion when it comes time to breed.
For now though, our job is to spend hours recording how much time they do, or don’t spend in the company of their target pairs.
Each evening Colleen and Brooke silently encourage their chicks to follow the adults and take solace in the few times they do. For twenty or so entries on a data sheet, they sit in the van for 10 hours a day plus the hour long ride back and forth from camp.
The female of the target pair assigned to the chicks Heather and Jo are monitoring was lost to predation. The male is the nemesis of 5-12 mentioned above so their two chicks are on their own.
They are picking good habitat and finding lots of food, plus they both carry GSM transmitters that provide their exact location every day. Because there is no chick-adult interaction, other than checking on them a few times a day there is not much need for full-time monitoring.
Number 30-16, the chick I am watching at White River Marsh, is spending most of the time with adults 4-12 & 3-14. They roost in an isolated spot deep in the marsh and spend their days on private lands to the west. Mostly I just hear their beeps coming from the same location and record that they are together. The male, 4-12 has a non functioning transmitter (NFT) so occasionally I trek in to get a visual or watch them leave to confirm he is actually still with them. So far, so good.
In fact, this association seems to be the only one working as it should.
If you actually get to watch the birds it can be interesting but that does not always happen. NPR is no longer a diversion with all the political rhetoric so most days are spent working on computer stuff punctuated by beep-beep-beep.