Do you remember that I promised (in Life in the Slow Lane) to continue my saga of monitoring Whooping Crane colts? Well, it has taken me a while, but finally here is part two. Just to remind you of some background, my monitoring assignments are 30-17 and 72-17. My target bird that those two were released near is 71-16, but she flew the coop and now hangs around Horicon Marsh. I accused Heather of stealing her, since Heather is monitoring two birds down there. At the end of part one, Heather and I had just found 30-17 at the edge of the woods and the marsh, standing upright (WHEW!), and later that day we saw her fly back into the marsh.
The next day proved even more interesting. First thing in the morning, I drove into the marsh and bounced my way over to the dike where the chicks had been released. The dike is about a mile long – every few hundred yards I would get out of the truck, take out the receiver and directional antenna, and take a reading on 30-17’s beeps. Sounds easy? Not on your knees! Getting out of the truck involves a “slide/jump” because the truck is so high. Getting back into the truck the first few times in a day is not bad – there’s a handle to help – but by mid-day my knees and hips are feeling it, and by the end of the day I’m very selective as to where and how often I decide to check for beeps!
I was able to bi-angulate the beeps to point to a location somewhat centered in the nearly rectangular set of dikes I was riding. I drove to the opposite side where the cattails were knocked down, thinking maybe I’d get a visual on her. It seemed like a good spot for a view if she decided to jump, dance, or flap. I climbed into the bed of the pickup (this is something you do NOT want to see!) and sat in the camp chair, scanning left-right-left-right, hoping for a glimpse.
Suddenly there she was! Not jumping, dancing, or flapping, well yes, flapping – she was FLYING! I got my binoculars on her and followed her short flight, making note of where she seemed to land. It was pretty close to her release site, so I headed back to that dike (that took me about 20 minutes). Once there, I put the truck on auto-pilot (no foot on the gas pedal) and crept along at 2 mph while I peered to the right, trying to peek through the cattails for a glimpse of her. Every so often I would take a beep reading. Each time, she was still somewhere out ahead of me, so I kept going in the same fashion, alternating between making sure I wasn’t driving off the dike and peering through the cattails on my right.
At one point, I decided I had to be pretty close so I decided I would stop the truck and go the rest of the way on foot. I shut off the ignition and turned to my left to open the door. As I did, obviously my line of sight turned to the left – a direction I hadn’t looked the entire way down this dike. And left was where she was! She was over on the other side of the canal on the left, looking at the truck like “hey stupid, I’m over here!”.
I froze! I panicked! You know that classic comedy routine where two people suddenly notice each other and both scream? That’s what I felt like – I’m supposed to be monitoring her – she’s not supposed to be monitoring me! At that point I just sat very still and she turned back to foraging and ambling alongside the canal, totally ignoring my presence. After about 30 minutes, she had made it to the far end of the canal where there is a path that crosses over to the dike I was parked on. I didn’t know if she would turn left into the scrub, head straight up the hill that becomes a road out of the marsh, or turn right and come onto the dike. She took her time deciding – there must have been some pretty good eats in that area.
Finally she committed to a direction – she took the path onto the dike, which is the last thing I thought she would do. This spot is at a corner of the rectangle I had been driving around, so she now had two choices – walk towards me or head on the “cross-dike” to the right and out of sight. She walked towards me! Actually, it’s hard to call it walking. It’s more like forage here – forage there – look around – take a step – repeat. But slowly, very slowly, she was making her way towards the truck. I guess I should have started the truck and retreated slowly in reverse, but I kept thinking that the truck would disturb her and that certainly, at some point, she would notice the truck and turn around.
At last she turned around and retraced her forage-steps for a while. And then turned around again coming towards me. At one point I think she finally got aggravated that I was in the way – she took flight and went right past me, and seemed to be muttering “I thought this marsh was closed to traffic – I’ll have to write to my representatives!” She landed on the same dike, a hundred or so yards behind me, and continued to forage-walk away from me.
I doubt I will ever have an experience like this again when I’m out monitoring, and rightfully so – such a close encounter is not at all what we strive for! Please don’t tell my boss how happy I am that this happened!