Who can forget that Sonny and Cher ear-worm from 1967. If they were to record it today under the WCEP label, it would be titled, “The BEEP Goes On.” And the continuous beeps from the whooping bird legband transmitters really do go on, right up until the time the batteries go dead and they don’t. Then the birds enter what crane biologists refer to as the dreaded state of… “Beeplessness.”
This condition is defined in the medical journals as “like when the EverReady Bunny stops beating his drum.” Without those beeps, locating and keeping tabs on our birds would be about as futile locating Waldo in a defective “Where’s Waldo” children’s book… And so, about every three or four years we have to recapture each bird and replace its transmitter… or at least try.
As you can imagine, capturing a whooping crane that has been in the wild for at least a few years is not easy and it is why the majority of our whooper population falls under the tracking designation of NFT’s or Non-Functioning Transmitters. More often than not, when Bev does her weekly whooper tracking flights, she has to rely on her camera with the monster lens that weighs more than the airplane to photograph each NFT whooper. This is especially true when flying over the Necedah Refuge where almost all the nesting takes place. Then she spends hours after every flight staring into a computer screen at the 500 or so pictures she took to identify the colored leg band combinations to ID the NFT birds. Again, “Where’s Waldo.” No one appreciates the sweet musical sound of a beep more than Bev. But I digress.
And so, as the sun began to peek over the horizon last Tuesday in Marathon County, our little banding team assembled… each of us on Work Release from our usual places of business; Hillary and Sabine from ICF, me from OM and Dr. Richard Urbanek from… Retirement.
As most of you know, Richard, a retired USFWS biologist, banded all of our Parent Reared and Costume Reared chicks this year and has banded most of the entire EMP whooper population over the years. In fact, legend has it that he was the first person to band a crane. No one knows exactly what year that was, but we do know that he caught the crane accidentally in his Velociraptor trap.
The morning’s mission was to replace the transmitter on whooper 28-05. Her transmitter had been dead for many years. The story of 28-05 would take up another update or more, so I’ll just say she has been hanging out around here, mostly with sandhill cranes, for more than a decade. The locals named her “Millie” after the nearby McMillan Marsh. This season, she finally had a whooper to hang with… our little 2-15, whose transmitter still works just fine. In fact, they nested this spring in a nearby marsh and produced two eggs. This was a very exciting and hopeful development… except for one minor detail; they are both females. A few weeks ago, we released two Patuxent Parent Reared chicks with them in hopes of an “adoption.”
“They always fly into feed with the cows about 8 o’clock in the morning,” the ranch owner told me the night before. And so we prepared our gear and waited. And waited. And after a while, the thought balloon ascended above each of us; “Ah… did someone forget to send them an invitation to the party”?
Sabine sped off in the ICF tracking van to see if she could locate our little “No Shows” while Richard, Hillary and I embarked on a serious effort to solve the world’s problems. And after a while, she returned. “I have a signal a couple of miles away but don’t see them.” So… off we went, and soon we were standing in a lady’s back yard staring out at an adjacent agricultural field where 28-05, 2-15 and the two Parent Reared chicks were foraging with a large flock of sandhill cranes. “That field is owned by a farmer who lives a few miles away,” the lady informed us. So… off we went to find him to ask permission to access his property. Soon, the farmer was dismounting his tractor to listen to our request. “…and they’re endangered and we wear these white costumes and….” to which he returned that all so familiar quizzical smile that reflects both benevolent cooperation and confused disbelief. “Sure… go ahead.”
As we made our exit, the farmer’s son walked over and asked him, “Who were those people, Dad?” The farmer scratched his head and replied, “Beats me, son.” Then he climbed back up onto his tractor and rolled away.
We drove back to the ag field, hoping the birds would still be there. And there they were…. GONE! So… back to our original starting point we went… and there they were… way out at the end of a pasture with the flock of sandhills.
We suited up and began the trek out past the herd of cows towards the birds.
“Who are those people,” the one cow asked the other cow.
“Beats me, son,” the cow answered. Then he turned and walked away.
…..to be continued tomorrow.