A Bird in Hand

Just about now, as we get into the dog days of summer, the reed canary grasses that dominate the uplands around White River Marsh should be turning brown. As the temperatures rise and the fields begin to dry out, the lush green of spring normally turns to myriad shades of brown and yellow. Not this year.

The ground is so saturated that even a light rain sits on the surface creating little lakes where we normally see corn. The rivers are high and running fast and all the wetlands have doubled in size. The state could now be a generic name for the color green. Wisconsin could be the label for the entire green spectrum as Sherwin Williams and it would cover every variation from lime to hunter.

Not only is it very green but it is growing at a spectacular rate. Grass that was sprouting just weeks ago when I left is now over my head. Back when we were still watching nests, we deployed trail cameras programed to take a photo every five minutes. Our hope was to record the incubation so we could determine if the eggs hatched or if they were predated and if so, by what. Unfortunately, everything grew so fast that instead of the once clear view of the nest only a few yards away, we recorded hundreds of images of green grass waving in the wind.

Phase one of this study was to determine how many nests successfully produced chicks. In phase two we hope to document what percentage of those chicks survived to fledge. So now we are patrolling the back roads looking for parents with chicks and as they get older, they are spending more time in the open where they are fairly easy to see – from a distance. Getting from the access road to the chick in time to have any idea where it went, is another issue.

If you know where to look you can generally see the chick when they wander into the open. But there is always a marsh or tall grass nearby, and they are instinctively programmed to head for a hiding place as soon as mom or dad give the word. In fact, that is one indicator that the adults have a chick with them. They are bothered by our presence, even at a distance and they are quick to fly off after instructing the chick or chicks on which way to run.

Brooke and Colleen have attempted to catch one chick four times without success and we did it again this morning. Colleen finds a high perch to spot them with binoculars while Brooke headed down the tree line and I circled around to the other side. We were not even close when the adults flew and we spent the next twenty minutes plotting an area a hundred meters square looking for a ten inch tall bird in five foot grass.

Brooke and Colleen spotted a pair with two chicks late last week but it was too warm to chase them down. This morning they were in an open field fifty yards from the tall grass. We knew if we approached from the road, they would just head for cover so we planned to come at them from three sides. As soon as we left the tree lines, the adult took off leaving the chicks to hide in short grass.

Joe trims the transmitter patch while Brooke holds BP5.1. Photo: C. Chase

The transmitter is placed on the chick’s back. Photo: C. Chase

It only took a minute to find them and ten minutes later they were both tagged and released. We checked back an hour later and they were both reunited with the adults – none the worse for the ordeal.

Finding adults and chicks is not difficult but capturing them is far more challenging. We made four attempts today but only managed to tag two – and they were twins. Which is why I was so frustrated on Saturday. I walked out to the camera to charge the batteries with the generator. It’s about a half mile walk and on the way I flushed a pair of adults from the tall grass. I must have surprised them because they took off when I was only thirty feet away. I stepped off the path and there were two, three-week-old chicks hiding perfectly still in the tall grass. I could have easily grabbed them both but I didn’t have my backpack with all equipment I would need. It was too warm to hold them until I could call Colleen and ask for help so the safest thing to do was to simply walk away. Adding two chicks to the study with almost no effort would have been a bonus but the safety of the birds comes first.

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  1. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd June 28, 2018 9:01 am

    Thank you for posting your successes and adventures while studying the cranes of WRM. Love seeing the young chicks and hearing about the research you are doing.

  2. John June 27, 2018 9:12 pm

    Thanks Joe, always appreciate you and your team’s efforts. Keep up the good work!

  3. Cheryl Murphy June 26, 2018 9:45 pm

    I love to read about your “adventures” Joe. And yes, this an especially “green” Wisconsin year. Thanks again for all of you and your crew’s efforts.

  4. Maggie June 26, 2018 12:39 pm

    They are so precious and I wish I could have the opportunity to hold them like you did. God bless all of you.Thanks for being so dedicated.

  5. Patti Kramer June 26, 2018 10:26 am

    You guys are so adaptable and take such careful care of the young chicks. I can’t give you enough kudos!!! Thank you.

    We saw a redwing blackbird trying to chase away some Sandhill Cranes from their meadow in Middleton. No success, they just ignored it.