I remember a winter many years ago that was very cold with almost no snow. Snowmobilers and skiers were not happy but skaters loved it. All the lakes and rivers froze solid and provided miles of arena quality ice. It was one of those unusual weather events like this spring. Two weeks ago we had deep snow banks and horrible driving.
We had to have the camp plowed out just to get the trailers and motor-homes on site and the marsh was inaccessible, except on snowshoes which is not part of our normal equipment.
Once we had our home base set up, we began looking for Sandhill crane nests. Apart from releasing and tracking parent-reared Whooping cranes this year, we are conducting a study at White River Marsh to determine the reproduction rate of the local Sandhill population. They are similar in behavior and habitat use so they can be used as an analogue species to evaluate how the Whooping crane should fare in this area.
Our researcher, Jeff Fox has been helping Dr. Brad Strobel, the resident biologist at Necedah NWR to conduct an ongoing study of the Sandhills there. For almost eight years, Jeff studied Sandhill cranes in Central Wisconsin and he has radio tagged and tracked over a thousand chicks for his thesis. He organized our White River study to be similar and comparable to the Necedah research.
Just like the winter of perfect ice, this late snow storm and associated cold temperatures has its benefits. We didn’t appreciate them while driving out here pulling trailers and campers but we have had some nice weather since then. The skies have been clear, the winds calm and the temperatures in the mid to high sixties. The marsh grasses and bull-rush have not sprouted yet and last year’s crop is still yellow and dry. It makes perfect insulation and just under the surface, the marsh is still frozen. Rather than sinking chest deep in water and muck, we can venture into areas not accessible later in the season. The wetlands are teaming with frogs looking for love with an unbelievably loud refrain, Red-winged blackbirds sing from their perch on the grass stems and the Canada geese warn everyone else in the marsh that we are trespassing.
Searching for Sandhill nests is one of those quiet and peaceful art forms. Rather than charging through the bulrushes, you must take note of the subtle behaviors we don’t normally notice. We watch for lone birds in the ag fields and ignore the pairs that are foraging together. Those individual birds are often the other parent that is feeding before they take their turn incubating the eggs. We watch them fly off into the wetland and we patiently wait for him to circle a few times before landing some distance from the nest. With binoculars we watch as he slowly makes his way through the tall reeds until another head pops up from an area we have scanned with the scope a hundred times.
When you approach an Incubating Sandhills it will lay flat on the nest almost invisible with gray feathers painted with iron-rich clay that turns them brown. So effective is their camouflage that they will stay motionless until you are as close as twenty feet. We then photograph the nest, make notes and get the GPS coordinates before getting out of there.
The longer we spend at the nest – the longer it takes them to return. With binoculars we watch that episode until one of them is safely back on the nest and that tell-tale head again drops into the tall vegetation.
Early morning is the best time to watch this behavior but persistence doesn’t always pay off. So sometimes we just have to pick what looks like good habitat and wade into the water. There is something palliative about a sunrise stroll through a marsh where no one else ventures. For every fifty feet of progress, we stop and look around for clues, not forgetting to look behind for the curious head to pop up to see if we are gone.
The late storm seems to have delayed everything at least two weeks. Nothing is green yet, there is still small piles of snow here and there despite the 70 degree temperatures. Two teams of two people have been searching for almost two weeks and found only five nests. But Jeff is confident that it is only postponed and not concluded. We expect to get busy in the nest week. So we will check all those spots again, slowly learning what happens in the marsh every spring if you sit quietly and watch.