To learn anything about birds, or any wildlife for that matter, you have to spend a lot of time quietly watching. You read behavior and learn to interpret its meaning. Finding nesting Sandhill cranes or new parents with a chick, is a little like wildlife detective work.
We currently have several nests identified and on each one we have positioned a trail camera that takes an image every five minutes. These recorded images will let us confirm whether the eggs hatched or were predated. If there is only one egg in the nest, we check it again in a day or two when the second one is generally laid. If it’s there, we can estimate the initiation date and have a rough idea of when those eggs will hatch. To find those nests, you can trudge through the marsh for hours hoping to flush an incubating bird. Sometimes they will take off when you are still hundreds of feet away and other times they crouch down and stay motionless until you are within twenty feet. One pass through the marsh doesn’t guarantee you will see them so it’s not the most effective search method.
Alternatively, you can find a lookout spot and scan what appears to be good habitat while looking for telltale signs.
Setting cranes are hard to see. They sit down low, behind high vegetation, and don’t move much for hours. But once in a while when everything seems quiet, they stand to rotate the eggs or trade duties with their mate. An area of cattails which looked deserted the last ten times you scanned it, and then — there it is, an extended neck, the red patch on a head, and a good indication where the nest might be.
We also watch for birds foraging alone in fields near the marsh. That could mean their mate is incubating so you wait to see where he goes when it’s his turn. Because of the unusual spring weather-wise, this breeding season has been elongated. Some pairs have just started nesting for maybe their second or third time, while others have eggs almost ready to hatch. The oldest of the chicks that we have captured and radio tagged so far has been around three weeks of age so we spend our time searching for both hiding nesters and cautious new parents.
Friday, we drove slowly along County D and spotted a pair in an open field. We slowed and even though we were several hundred yards away, they perked up. Like any bird, cranes only get interested in passing cars if they slow down or stop. Mostly, they have a buffer zone with which they are comfortable. If you crowd that space, they will calmly walk away until they are satisfied they can be airborne before you can cause any harm. To them, we are just another predator to be kept at a safe distance.
Cranes with a chick however, use a different strategy. As soon as they spot you, they call to the chick to hide and they make a fuss, while walking in the other direction. That happens at two or three times the normal buffer zone and even though you can’t see the six inch tall chick in the grass, you can be fairly certain it’s there.
Jeff Fox first spotted the County D pair and as we pulled over, they flew a large circle calling the whole time. We grabbed our gear and ran out to where they had been last. Cranes have an amazing capacity to hide. Even pure white Whooping cranes can disappear when they need to and camouflaged Sandhill can simply vanish, especially the chicks. We paced the field looking for a chick, while the parents flew overhead three of four times calling unintelligible messages to the chick hiding somewhere in the grass.
After twenty minutes, we followed Jeff’s experience and moved back to the truck. The parents watched with concern from the periphery but stopped yelling at us as we retreated. Things got quiet and after a few minutes and as Jeff predicted, the deserted chick began to make its way back to where it had last seen Mom and Dad. He spotted the little brown head bobbing through the grass and sprinted like an athlete in waders. He covered two hundred feet in record time through grass that wasn’t much longer than a lawn in need of cutting. Still, we had to watch our step and search for a while before spotting the chick in an area we had just covered.
This chick was about six inches tall and so unfamiliar with humans that it relaxed almost immediately. Apart from being cupped in Jeff’s hand, nothing bad was happening, so the tagging went smoothly.
Within a few minutes, we were out of there and the chick was reunited with its parents. It was exciting to read the signs and watch the behavior and know that your instincts were correct. It like being a wildlife detective but with waders instead of a badge.
It has always been a privilege to work with birds. We have gained insight into their environment like few others and the best part is — you never stop learning.