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.
We have all appendages crossed.