A NIGHT ON THE REFUGE

Guest Author: Bev Paulan

Every night in birdland is different than the last. When Brooke and I walk out to our observation blind, we never know exactly where the chicks will be. Before we walk out, we pull out the telemetry receiver and listen to the beeps to get a general idea of the birds’ proximity and direction. Some nights, all the beeps are loud and clear. Other nights only a few of the birds are close, and it is never the same birds in the same location.

Last night, on listening to the receiver, all 12 signals (we are also scanning for the two DAR chicks and 19-09) were of a medium strength. That told us the birds were near what had previously been their pen site, but not right at the pen area. In the morning, the signals had been weak, telling Brooke that the birds were off at the Sandhill’s roost area, approximately ¾ of a mile south of where the pen had been.

Sneaking into the blind Brooke had set up, we saw initially no birds. Scanning the area, we still saw no chicks, so we left the blind and walked down a path that would take us towards the fields the chicks have frequented. We no sooner got on the path, than we spotted some white through the trees and made a quick beeline back to the blind. Six of the chicks came walking from the field they had been in the previous morning, then flew across their roosting pond and over toward a gathering of their gray brethren. One chick peeled off and landed in the pond, and the other five quickly melded into the flock of Sandhills.

That left six cranes still unaccounted for, other than the audible beep on the receiver. The field that the birds feed in during the day has several dips, and a portion cannot be seen from Brooke’s small blind hidden in the trees. We can only see them when they fly up out of the wet depression, or pop their heads up if something causes concern.

Since we could not see the other six, Brooke decided to hike the long route out of sight of the birds that runs through the trees and over the hills to a vantage point overlooking the flyway to the Sandhill’s roosting slough. Each night the two DAR chicks and 19-09 have roosted with the Sandies, and on two occasions so has 7-11. Bearing that in mind, Brooke wanted to be pre-positioned in case they flew that way again. I stayed in the blind keeping watch on the field in case the missing six flew into view.

Shortly after five, right on their usual schedule, the Sandhills started rising into the air in small groups, calling their prehistoric, indescribable call. And, because of all that ruckus, I spied three cinnamon and white heads pop up over the rise across the way as if they were rubber-necking at an accident. If there were three, perhaps there could be six. I would just have to wait and see.

My patience was rewarded, because within five minutes, just as a large group of Sandhills were lifting off, four white shapes emerged from the depression. Quickly grabbing my binoculars, I saw that three still had buff colored heads while one was sporting a beautiful red crown and full black mustache. That left two still unseen. I made a quick call to Brooke to let him know white birds were headed his way and then went back to check on the original five across the field. After a rapid back and forth scan, only one bird was visible. How could I have missed the other four flying away? Another call to Brooke and then back to scanning.

Wheeler refuge is situated along a rather busy state highway and the traffic noise can be fairly loud. Sandhill cranes can be louder though, and every time a group became airborne, the traffic would be drowned out. Over this whole din I could hear the plaintive and very loud peeps of a chick in distress. Like any parent, I immediately became hyper-aware, and looked to see the cause of the angst.

The remaining chick across the field was looking in every direction for her fellow cohort members and calling loudly to them. With a very observable double-take on her part, she took off at a very quick walk, going completely opposite of where I thought the birds had flown. The chick that had landed in the pond also started walking the same general direction. Then I glimpsed white far across the pond. I waited until the two chicks were a good ½ mile away and I crawled out of the blind into the periphery of the field to see if I could get a beak count.

Since it has warmed up, not only was I looking for chicks, but snakes as well, since I was now on a nose to nose level with any reptile lurking about ( I am especially paranoid after a sneak attack by a frog last night). While trying my best to sneak, I looked up just in time to see the last two unaccounted for chicks take off from their hidden position across the way and fly Brooke’s general direction. By this time I had gotten to a spot to count six chicks on the north end of the pond, and finally sighed a grateful sigh that all 12 birds were found and accounted for.

After sneaking back into the blind, I once again called Brooke, who having seen the last two fly by his hidding spot, was walking back to my location. After he returned and before leaving the blind, we watched the six chicks forage their way back to a good roosting position. Another interesting evening in birdland and as we walked back to the van, we reveled in the music of geese, ducks, and frogs, content in our muddy condition knowing that all the birds were well on their way to independence.

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