Young Love – First Nest in White River Marsh!

During my sixteenth summer I worked for a youth program run by the Department of Lands and Forests here in Ontario, Canada.

Being a Junior Ranger was very popular and it was an achievement just to be accepted. It was a lot like a mini version of boot camp. Kids from all over the Province were shipped to parks and forest projects to spend the first summer away from home, building trails, thinning forests and controlling invasive plant species — even back them.

The team of pimple faced, testosterone raging, combatants — into which I fit well, spent our time at the end of a 25 mile logging road in a wilderness area of the boreal forest. We lived in tents, ate at a mess hall and spent our time thinning out poplar trees so the pines could grow and planting saplings by the thousands.

That is when I became familiar with blackflies. We worked in teams, all strung out in evenly spaced rows. Each of us carried a tray of tiny trees sprouting in little plastic tubes and a tool for punching a hole in the ground into which we dropped a tree and secured it with a well placed foot step. We marched in increments, across meadows, clear cut sites and forest fire burns. Much of it was low country and as we plodded along, we raised clouds of blackflies.

Mosquitoes are a nuisance but wearing nets and long sleeves takes care of most of them. Blackflies however, are evil. They are too tiny to swat except to brush away fifty or more at a time. They collect in the seams of your clothing and crawl under the layers to bite you behind the ears, in your hair line and all the places mosquitoes don’t seem to find. Annoying as mosquitoes are, they still delicately remove your blood through a built-in straw. Blackflies are like tiny, airborne piranha. They tear off a chuck and sit in a tree to eat it. In the end, you are left with tiny little scabs which bleed when you succumb to the intolerable itch.

According to Dr. Peter Adler of Clemson University and one of the world experts on blackflies, there are 254 recognized species in North America. At least three of them are known to target birds, and it seems that all three are present at Necedah.

When we battled blackflies in northern Ontario, we had jackets, hats, nets and several coats of citronella. Plus we had hands to brush them away and react to the worst of the itching. We were also driven by the false bravado of adolescence and the fear of being the first to wine about something as trivial as a bug.

The Whooping cranes however, lack any protection from insects that can burrow through their feathers. They sit on a nest in a blackfly paradise, day after day as the little monsters seems bleed them dry.

Still, as much as I hate blackflies, there is a place for them on the landscape. I can’t imagine how stealing blood and tormenting animals has any direct benefit to the ecosystem, but they are food for something. There are people within WCEP on both sides of that discussion.

Through the expertise and generosity of Dr Peter Adler and Dr Elmer Gray et al, most of the blackflies in and around Necedah were killed in the spring of 2012. No suppression methods were used in 2013 and the blackflies made a complete comeback with numbers as high as they ever were before the use of Bti. That resilience is a good indication that controlling their population, at least until the Whooping crane population gets established, would not have any long term affect on blackfly survival.

The nest abandonment in 2013 was so closely aligned with the blackfly bloom that it is impossible to deny the cause. But that is only part of the problem. Even though more pairs hatched eggs and produced chicks in 2012, only two survived to fledge. There are layers to this problem and using Bti is not the only solution. The next step in the research should be to aggressively determine what is happening to the chicks between the time they hatch and when they can fly away from whatever it is that is getting them. Unfortunately that isn’t simple. Whooping crane chicks leave the nest shortly after they hatch and follow their parents and they learn to forage. They wander the extent of their parents’ territories and are impossible to track using fixed cameras. And much of the habitat is not easily accessible by even the most practised and stealthy biologist. Still WCEP is nothing if not innovative and I am confident we will find a solution.

In the interim was are about to begin our fourth season at White River Marsh. This habitat is outside the range of the blackfly species that targets birds so we hope for better recruitment. Mike Callahan, pilot and tracker for the Wisconsin DNR has been tracking birds from above and confirmed a nest this week, although in an odd location.

His report stated “As of 1:00 today, (April 24) 7-11 is sitting on what appears to be a nest barely above water in the center of the woodlot. 10-11 is foraging in an ag field 500 feet south of same woodlot”. This location is in the Grand River Marsh which is part of the White River complex. The pair is only three years old so we allow them a little confusion but it is a good sign. If the nest survives and they fledge chicks, it will be a great sign.

WC 2014-04-18 07,10-11_e

We have all appendages crossed.


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  1. Vannie Zychowicz April 29, 2014 11:27 am

    So glade to here They are back and on nest Hope we have young’s one this years You’s are doing an great job.


  2. Russell Allison April 28, 2014 7:08 pm

    Come on lady luck it is about time you gave the Whoopers and Operatrion Migration some good luck for a change. Lets go for a record number of new Whoopers. Go Whoopers.

  3. Mindy Finklea April 28, 2014 2:31 pm

    So exciting! Praying for these wonderful OM chicks and their chicks!
    Father God, put your Hands over them and protect them…..

    • M L Walsh aka maxgreenwing April 29, 2014 11:10 am


  4. Joe Duff April 28, 2014 11:34 am

    No idea is foolish Donald. If it were, we would not be teaching birds to migrate. However there are some that we should reconsider.

    Firstly, capturing and transporting the birds inevitably results in a percentage of injury. Collecting all the birds at Necedah would take weeks of planning and lots of experienced help, and unfortunately, some would be lost. Secondly, in the Whooping crane world, it is the male that selects a female and leads her to his nesting territory so there is a good chance he would fly back immediately whether she came along or not. Thirdly wing clipping is dangerous for wild birds. It lasts a long time and leaves them unable to avoid predators. Despite our best efforts, pens are not 100% predator proof.

    Thanks for the idea, they’re all worth considering.

  5. Chix Laces April 28, 2014 11:32 am

    Way to go, whoopers! Whoop, whoop, whooray!

  6. Donald April 28, 2014 8:32 am

    Thanks Joe: Re the flock at Necedah: (a foolish suggestion ?)–Recapture all the Necedah flock. Clip a wing of all females and relocate them to a penned in area where they have habitat, habitat, habitat, conducive for reproduction.
    Would the female and her chick both return to their new habitat?
    I have been following your work since the fall of 2001 and like you I am disappointed with the Necedah’s reproduction rate.
    You may be familiar with the California condor restoration project. There the problem is not with habitat, but with environment. They have to get the lead out–stop the use of lead shot by hunters.Wishing your efforts well.

  7. Deanna Uphoff April 28, 2014 8:21 am

    Hoping for all good things, weather, no preditors, and a nice hatched healthy chick to head with his/her parents on the first trip south and back!

  8. Lori (loriearn) April 28, 2014 7:49 am

    Lets give our youth credit where credit is due. At least they know what they are supposed to do! 🙂
    Hope all turns out the right way and we will all be blessed with a wee whooper soon.

  9. Shelly April 28, 2014 7:34 am

    Aren’t these two of the Wheeler birds? As our pal Laura would say, “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”! Hoping and praying that these birds successfully raise a chick and can’t wait to see them in Bama next fall! WHOOP!

    • Heather Ray April 28, 2014 8:14 am

      They are two from the first cohort raised at White River Marsh. I believe they did winter at Wheeler NWR

  10. marje lloyd April 28, 2014 7:16 am

    this is really exciting what an important nest

  11. Patti April 28, 2014 6:22 am

    Whoooop!!! They are young BUT!!!! here’s hoping it goes well and we have new chics soon!!!