The basic concept of our Sandhill Crane Productivity Study is to determine the hatching and fledging success rate for the birds in and around White River Marsh. Phase one was to locate nests and attempt to determine the initiation date so we could guesstimate when the eggs would hatch.
They were checked periodically during incubation and we placed trail cameras a few yards away to record activity. That was back when the marsh was just starting to bloom but it grew up so fast that some of the cameras recorded nothing more than a solid wall of swaying cattails.
Phase two of the study was to find parents that were very creative in hiding their chicks. Colleen kept meticulous notes on the behavior of pairs they watched every day. She kept track of where they roosted and when they left and made their way to their favorite foraging grounds. She and Brooke then plotted the best place to ambush them so the chicks couldn’t make it to the tall grass and disappear. Each capture is usually successful on the second or third attempt.
Earlier this week we had a full contingent. Brooke and Colleen led while Heather and I backed them up. A pair of savvy parents with twins have been avoiding capture primarily by spending a lot of their time in a cow pasture. That sounds like a perfect spot to grab them but this pasture is low and right next to the marsh. It is filled with clump grass which forms a solid root base that will support your weight if you place your foot just right. Obviously the cows don’t bother with hoof placement because the gaps between the clumps are deep with water, thick mud and whatever else the cows decide to leave behind. In the center of this pasture is a small thicket of trees and brush about thirty yards in diameter. It is dense with undergrowth and the perfect spot to hide chicks. Brooke and Colleen call it the island.
Navigating the pot-holed pasture to get to the island demands that you look where you are going or risk a broken leg, so you can’t keep your eye on the chicks as the attack is launched. However, Brooke and Colleen recently spotted the family in the lee of the lea. They were on the opposite side of the little forest from where we would attempt to cross their natural moat. That meant we could make a careful approach without being seen… in theory.
All four of us quietly (a relative term) crossed the Swiss cheese pasture and then worked our way through and around the island. We were almost to the far end before the parents took off. The brush was far too thick to see anything but we heard the thrash of heavy wing beats and knew we were close. Usually the chicks will run through the grass at remarkable speed and bury themselves like moles but we caught them off guard so they just tucked in where they were. Within a minute we had the first one.
Brooke quickly applied a fresh transmitter and let the glue set up a little before we released it. It disappeared in a second but we watched the trail of moving grass as it made its way to the cover of the island at amazing speed. It’s hard to understand how it could even navigate through grass three times tall than it was but it was gone in an instant.
We suspected the other chick was close so we made lots of noise while we attended to the first, in hopes of keeping him from dashing off. We began to check the area and Colleen spotted him within a few feet. We attached a new transmitter, checked him over and released him in the same direction as his sibling. We caught both chicks in the worst possible location without so much as spraining an ankle.
A lot of it was luck but as Mart Twain once said — the harder we work, the luckier we get.