You’ve no doubt heard about a “big year” – there was even a movie called “The Big Year” starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. It was based on the true story of three expert birders who set out to break the record of seeing the most bird species in one year. Today, Heather and I decided to do a Whooping Big Day – we wanted to set a record for seeing the most Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin in one day.
Big Days (and Big Years) are all about preparation. Before you even start, you map out a route that will most efficiently take you by the most potential sightings. You gas up your vehicle and run all your errands the day before. You pack up a bunch of food because you won’t have time to stop. Come the Big Day, you will be out before dawn (sometimes as soon as midnight passes) and you won’t have time for ANYTHING except tracking down Whooping Cranes. And you’ll stay out until midnight so you put in every possible minute working towards your goal.
So, did Heather and I do all that? No! Of course not! We got up and worked for a while. Then we both headed out to find the birds we were assigned to monitor. Then, about 10 am, Heather texted me and said “you want to do a Big Day?”. Oh yeah I sure did! I was feeling pretty lucky because I had just gotten eyes on both of my colts. Heather was apparently having good luck in her county, too.
Sure enough, Heather had seen four Whooping Cranes so far. I texted her the sets of coordinates for my two birds so she could swing by and see them on her way back to camp. Now she was up to six.
We decided to meet at camp and ditch one vehicle. For the rest of the day I would drive and she would navigate and hold the antenna out the window, listening for beeps.
First though, we figured we better do those pesky errands. We needed to stop at our storage hangar to pick up more scarves. We needed to stop at the Dollar Store for mailing envelopes. And we had to fill up my gas tank, as I only had 1/4 left. I told you we didn’t prepare!
As we were passing White River Marsh on our way down County Road D, Heather yelled “STOP!”, so I slowed down. There, off in the distance, were nine, yes NINE Whooping Cranes flying towards Henry’s pond!
So now Heather was up to, hmmmmm, 15 Whooping Cranes so far today!
A swing around to the west and then north and we added the Royal Couple (4-12 & 3-14) and then 4-13 & 10-15!
Next, we headed to Marquette County to see how many of Joe’s birds we could track down. We slowly drove the back roads listening for 28-17’s beeps, and finally gave that up in favor of looking for others. We stopped at one of Joe’s most promising locations for sightings, and got beeps on 27-14, but no visuals.
Moving on, we went looking for the others known to be in this area. We got to the west side of a marsh and some ag fields and stuck the antenna out. Sure enough, beeps, but we wanted visuals! We rode up and down this rode, stopping on the crests of all the hills. There were about a zillion sandhills and we were certain if we scanned them carefully with our binoculars, we’d find the whoopers we knew were there somewhere.
Finally! Way behind the ag fields, in a bunch of scrubby grass with only two sandhills we spotted not one, not two, but THREE WHOOPERS! They were a long way off so our photos are not so hot, but we didn’t need to see the legbands because the beeps told us who were viewing. They were Peanut (4-14), his pal 11-15 and the female Parent-Reared chick #26-17! AND they were together!
We were as far south as we needed to go, so we backtracked. Again Heather yelled “STOP! I SEE THEM!” This was a fast road, so it took me a while to actually stop. I turned around and we crept along in the gutter while Heather peered through the trees to find the two white dots she somehow spotted while we were going about 50 mph. She found them – and we confirmed them with binoculars. This was female 27-14 and her mate 10-11.
At this point we had 24 whoopers on our list and we were hoping for a 25th. We turned onto the back roads, slowed down and Heather put the antenna out. We drove all around for about 45 minutes, hoping to find 28-17 but it wasn’t to be.
Heather’s Big Day ended then, at 4:00 in the afternoon, with 24 Whooping Cranes, because we had to get back and get ready to go out for dinner. Not bad, eh? Maybe next year we’ll break this record by actually preparing ahead of time!
Here are the photos of all 24 whooping cranes spotted yesterday. Some, aren’t the best in terms of photographic elements but keep in mind, in some cases, the birds were a half mile or more away.
PRESTO! Twenty-four whooping cranes in one day in the eastern half of Wisconsin!