Bev Paulan, former OM Supervisor of Field Operations, and now a pilot for Wisconsin DNR, is currently vacationing in Florida. She is having a sort of ‘busman’s holiday’ as she is spending her time there at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge assisting Brooke with winter monitoring. As a result, she was on hand when the latest dramatic event occurred and kindly agreed to recount the story here for our Field Journal readers.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT – by Bev Paulan
Since I arrived here at St. Mark’s there has not been a dull moment. The month did not start on an auspicious note, unfortunately, with the predation of 6-12. The days here have been spent trying to locate any signs of the bobcat, scouting game trails, placing trail cameras, and setting traps. As if that wasn’t enough to do, Brooke was out playing swamp monster at first light every morning, trying to ensure the remaining chicks would not go back to the location 6-12 was predated.
The chicks seemed spooked during the first two days they were minus one of their cohort. It took them a short period to seem relaxed, and by the middle of the week, their behavior appeared to be back to normal.
Wednesday night we went out to the blind on the normal schedule and prepared to watch and wait as the chicks went about their usual pre-roost routine. For the past several evenings the chicks were in the pen when we arrived, and they would stay in the pen. In fact, I had not seen them fly yet, as they were always in the pen when I was in the blind.
Wednesday night was no different, nor was Thursday. The chicks alternated between feeding at the feeders, getting drinks from the fresh water bubblers, and even exhibiting a bit of play behavior by jumping and raking at each other. Eventually they’d wander out to the oyster bar in the pond and begin to preen, this being the last step before they tucked a leg up and their head under their wings.
Friday night appeared to be the same routine. Brooke and I arrived at the blind and all four birds were still inside. In short time, though, they were all airborne and took a few laps around the marsh. Three of the four landed back inside the pen with 4-12 landing outside of the pen.
We were watching to see if she would figure out how to get back into the pen on her own, when they all took off again and flew a few more laps. This time, they all landed outside and began foraging. It was obvious to us that they were finding something to eat. We watched as they wandered across the field, and wondered when they would fly back into the pen. The sun crept lower in the sky and our wondering became more intense.
It soon became apparent we would have to do something to get them back into the pen. We grabbed the loud hailer to play the brood call (this being step one in our arsenal of tricks). The adult’s brood call we broadcast across the marsh elicited responses from every Clapper rail in the vicinity, and induced the ire of a male Cardinal who began to scold us. The only reaction we got from the chicks however, was them calling back. No attempt to fly, and no turning back towards the pen.
Like most parents, our frustration grew as we gave them ten more minutes to figure it out on their own. Then the chicks stated walking back towards the pen. Our hopes rose only to be dashed when we realized they had no intention of going back inside. The clue to that realization? They started to preen, and one even started to tuck a leg.
Brooke raced to put on his costume and grabbed the swamp monster kit and with quick instructions to me, he ran out into the marsh to haze the chicks back into the safety of the pen. With me playing the brood call from the blind and Brooke doing his best swamp monster dance, the chicks took wing and after a few laps and much worry on our part, they were back in the pen and marching out to the oyster bar.
Saturday was spent with a little leisure time between morning and evening bird duties. As we made the long walk from the parking area to the blind we were blissfully ignorant of the chicks’ actions during the day. As any parents of teenagers know, sometimes it is better if you aren’t aware of what they are up to. I was first up and into the blind and it didn’t take me long to realize the birds had flown the coop – so to speak.
Brooke’s head took on an Exorcist-like motion, as he too looked for the chicks. I grabbed the telemetry equipment and turned on the receiver and heard nothing but static. I ran out into the marsh to get away from buildings and trees and still no beeps. The question marks were visible over our heads—-“WHERE DID THEY GO NOW?” was the unspoken question.
I stayed in the blind, while Brooke went back to the tracking van to drive around and listen for a signal from the transmitters on the birds. I played the loud hailer and the receiver, all with no luck. Before long the sun began to set and I walked back to the parking area in the falling darkness to wait for Brooke to return. We checked a couple of more places on the way back to camp in the tracking van, then turned in for a worry-filled, sleepless night.
Before the sun was up Sunday morning Brooke headed north to where #11 and 15-09 had been frequenting near Tallahassee. No luck there. He came back to the pen, arriving at his usual time. Great news! Well, half great news. He called to let me know that two of the chicks were back. #5 and #7 had returned at sunrise. Now the search for #4 and #11 would begin again.
All day Sunday was spent searching for the chicks but to no avail. After much bribery from Brooke, 5 and 7 stayed in the pen that evening and were still in the pen Monday morning. The busy schedule of working on finding the bobcat and searching for the other two chicks resumed. Brooke even made a trip up a tower to try and get longer range on the receiver, but still no luck.
As of this writing (Tuesday morning), we’ve still had no sign of 4 or 11-12. We are searching again today, but I am holding out little hope of locating them. Spring arrived very early this year so they could well have already headed north.
The winds aloft have been very strong out of the south. There have been reports of Sandhill cranes migrating from southern Florida, and the majority of the wintering ducks have already left the refuge. So who knows, the chicks could have already begun migration. Please, keep your eyes to the skies and perhaps you can find our wayward two.