A Whooping crane stands out on the landscape like the red light on a fire truck. There is nothing subtle or camouflaged about them, hence that name. Sandhill cranes, on the other hand, take full advantage of their color. In fact, they even augment that concealment by painting their feathers with iron rich clay and creating a mix of grey and brown that blends perfectly with the dry marsh grasses from last season. Hiding is one of their defense strategies. They will lay flat on the nest and remain perfectly still until we are less than twenty feet away and even then, they generally flush before we see them.
With a transact interval of twenty feet or less, crisscrossing the marsh to find nests is not an efficient use of your energy; especially when each step can land you waist deep in mud or standing on a hummock — in random order.
One of our tactics is to read their behavior. A single foraging bird is a telltale sign that the other may be on a nest somewhere close by. So you wait for the incubation exchange when they switch places, or a territory defense when another pair ventures too close and they both participate in the challenge. With careful observation and a little understanding, you can pinpoint a nest location even though you have no hope of actually seeing it from the ground. Then comes the tedious job of translating that visual reference to the real location and the confirmation of an actual nest. Once we find the nest and GPS the location, we are in and out in less than three minutes. Then we time the disturbance and how long it took for the birds to return.
The next phase is to place a time-lapse, trail camera near the nest so we can determine if the eggs hatch or what caused the problem if they didn’t. When we placed the first camera this season, the ground was still frozen under six inches of water. I used a T-post driver to pound it down through the upper layer into the thick mud below. I mounted the camera and wrapped the post with marsh grasses using plastic tie wraps. The ice slowed me down and it was the first camera of the season so it took me thirteen minutes before I was clear of the nest and the adult could come back. That took another thirty minutes, which is a long time when the sun is hot, but she finally settled back down.
For the next few days we watched to ensure she was still there. Standing on the back of the truck parked at a safe distance, we waited for hours for her head to pop up from the tall grass and we searched for a lone partner foraging nearby. Nothing!! I had given up hope thinking I was in there too long or placed the camera too close and caused her to abandon the nest. I was full of guilt and reluctant to go back in and cause more disturbance, besides the camera would eventually tell us what happened and when.
Saturday was perfect flying weather so we accepted the offer of a volunteer pilot to fly us over the marsh and have a look at the nest from a safe altitude. Sandhill nests are as hard to see from 500 feet in the air as they are from twenty feet on the ground so Heather took photographs of the entire area. Once projected on a large screen we could make out the trail camera and also see the Sandhill sitting on her nest, calmly enjoying the sunshine. This image has been blown up many times so try your luck at finding her and the camera.