In the fall of 2016, I spent most of my time monitoring a parent-reared chick in and around the White River Marsh. By luck of the draw, number 30-16 was the only chick that year to be properly adopted by adult Whooping cranes. When I say luck, I suppose I mean for the chick. It had the benefit of a perfect education. It learned to roost in isolated ponds deep in the marsh and forage in fields well away from roads and people. It followed its alloparents to their wintering grounds and then back in the spring; but to be honest, part of the luck was mine.
It was inspiring to watch 30-16 grow and learn as part of a family unit. With a tracking antenna, I would check the common roost sites before sunrise to figure out where they spent the night. And I learned where to park so I could stand on the truck just after first light to hear them call and watch as they flew through the early morning fog – past a background of brilliant fall colors. On the day of the first serious snowfall, I watched them head north to their foraging field but then turn around mid-air and disappear over the southern horizon on their way to Georgia for the winter.
By random selection, Jo and Heather were assigned to monitor a PR chick last year in Outagamie County that was predated on its first night of freedom. Then they switched over the Marquette County to watch two chicks they eventually (and affectionately) nicknamed Dumb and Dumber.
This year I wasn’t so lucky. I monitored cranes 26-17 and 28-17 both released deep in Grand River Marsh. The DNR wetland complex at GRM is surrounded by private property that is mostly used for hunting. During the waterfowl season, the property owners understandably don’t like people traipsing through their marsh. It increases their liability and scares the ducks so it was difficult to monitor either of those two chicks.
The State owned land is mostly water, covered with cattails and bordered by a raised dike. There was no good vantage point where I could see them even with a scope. Instead, I had to be content to listen to the reassuring beep from their transmitters. The female, #26-17 also had a GSM remote tracking device that works on cell signals so most days we got a report that showed where she was and where she had been.
Number 28-17, on the other hand, only had a VHF tracking device, which is good for a mile or so at best. We obviously picked the wrong bird to fit with a remote device because while she stayed in the marsh, he took off almost immediately. He was spotted in a backyard a few miles to the north. I heard a weak signal several miles to the east and then the DNR pilot picked up a strong signal but no visual in the next county to the north. Thereafter we would get a couple of beeps periodically from different locations but no confirmed sightings or even enough signal to properly triangulate his position. The DNR pilots have searched the entire area several time since without a trace of him, so we can assume he followed some Sandhill’s south. I suspect he is alive and someone will send us a photo good enough to see his legband color combination but for now, his location is a mystery.
Meanwhile, 26-17 stayed very close to where she was released. Every day I would pick up strong signals and they were confirmed by the GSM plot that showed exactly where she was and when. It was surprising how small an area she used.
She spent all of her time mostly within one flooded field and her GSM plot looked like a mess of intersecting lines and red dots. Although she was close to 27-14 and 10-11, the target pair that we hoped would adopt her, I could never confirm that they were together. In fact, I occasionally saw them in other foraging fields alone.
It’s hard to get attached to a bird you rarely see. There is not much of an emotional connection to directional beeps. But then one day Peanut and 11-15 showed up.
We got to watch them for a few days and strongly suspect they migrated together. They made a beeline south and must have split up because 26-17 resumed her habit of staying mostly on one place. She used a sandbar on the Wabash River near Compton Precinct in Illinois.
Each of her GSM plots showed her moving back and forth in an area no more than half a mile long. Twice other trackers tried to see her but could only get confirming signals that she was still there.
It was Heather who first became suspicious of her lack of movement. She was able to monitor the dropping battery strength. GSM units are solar charged and low battery levels indicate that it is not getting enough sun. Some of that can be attributed to weather or time the bird spends standing in water. But over a couple of weeks, Heather began to suspect something was not right.
After Brooke and Colleen released the last three costume reared birds at Goose Pond and then headed back to Wisconsin to collect the motorhome and close up the camp. On the way south to Florida, they stopped to check on 26-17. Before long they found the VHF radio transmitter but no bird, then they found the feathers. It’s too late to even guess what happened. She was likely predated but we have no idea by what species. Brooke continued to search while Colleen raked much of the forest looking for the GSM transmitter. Its battery is dead so it could now be anywhere. Not only did we lose the bird but also the $3500 transmitter is missing.
I feel bad that I didn’t become more attached to that bird but it wouldn’t have helped her. It would have just made it harder on me. By the way, 30-16 is at St. Marks.