Dance Like Nobody is Watching

Doug Pellerin captured these photos showing Whooping cranes #4-14 (Peanut) and his new gal pal #7-17 enjoying some dance moves on Saturday in neighboring Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin.

Watching cranes dance is a joy. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Photo: Doug Pellerin

“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.” – Jane AustenPride      and Prejudice

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First Crane Chicks of 2018 are on the Landscape!

Welcome to the world W1-18 and W2-18! These siblings are from parents 5-11 and 12-11 in Juneau County and are officially the first wild-hatched Whooping crane chicks of the 2018 season.

Mom or Dad with two new Whooping crane chicks. Photo: Bev Paulan

Bev Paulan flew a nest survey over much of Wisconsin yesterday, which made for a long 8-hour flight!

Huge thanks to Bev for locating these two very new chicks (and for the fantastic photo) and 9 other active nests, including: 

27-14/10-11 Marquette Cty
3-14/4-12 Green Lake Cty (Photo below)
3/7-11 Adams Cty
24/42-09 Adams Cty (Photo below)
5-10/28-08 Marathon Cty (Photo below)
32-09/19-10 Wood Cty
W3-10/8-04 Juneau Cty/Necedah NWR
16-07/1-04 Juneau Cty/Necedah NWR
36-09/18-03 Juneau Cty/Necedah NWR

White River Marsh’s Royal Couple (3-14 & 4-12) are on a nest!

Whooping cranes 24-09 (Dad) and 42-09 stand on and near the nest containing two eggs. Photo: Bev Paulan

Mom (#5-10) stands on the nest containing two eggs while Dad (28-08) is nearby. Photo: Bev Paulan

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Did You Spot the Nest?

Yesterday we tasked you with locating the Sandhill crane nest in a photograph.

To see if you were able to locate the correct location, have a look at the images below!

And just so you don’t go blind trying to see the crane, you can click on the above image to enlarge to full size, or just have a look at this cropped image:

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Invading Their Personal Space

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.

Can you find the nest? Tune in tomorrow to see if you’re right!

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You Win Some – You Lose Some

On Saturday, Colleen told you about a suspected flooded Sandhill crane nest and while that particular crane appears to be settled back onto the nest platform, it will be some time before we’ll know for certain if the nest was lost to the rising waters.

This morning Joe and I set out to walk a small wetland very near to our camp and within 5 minutes of entering the mucky area, we found another nest – this one containing two eggs. We gathered coordinates and a photo of the eggs and then moved on to check another area.

Constructed from cattails, this nest is nice and high and has a shallow ‘bowl’ to hold the eggs. Photo: J. Duff

Next, we drove into Berlin to check on a nest just south of town. Sadly, upon arriving we knew right away the nest was flooded. The 3+ inches of rain which fell Thursday night was followed by more rain on Friday night causing the Fox River to swell and flood out this nest.

The incubating Sandhill crane is very well camouflaged. Photo: H. Ray

Here is the scene we arrived to see today:

Sadly, her nest was just not high enough to withstand the rising waters of the river. Photo: H. Ray

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Do Your Part

Thursday night we got more than 3″ of rain. On top of a late Spring snow storm that dumped a lot of snow that has melted now.

Friday morning we watched a female Sandhill frantically trying to shore up her nest as the water in the pond got higher and higher.

From 6 am till almost 2 pm she stood by that nest, rearranging and worrying over it. We did not want to walk out and flush her. She was stressed enough.

Around 2 Brooke reported that she was down on it. I want so much to believe that it’s ok. But, I don’t think it is. If those eggs got wet they could not exchange oxygen.

Even if they are not viable she may sit till mid June. She might not know it’s hopeless.

So, politics aside. Do what is within your power to be kind to our planet. Global warming or climate change, what ever you want to call it is real. It’s happening and every species is affected.

No matter what species, a mama will fight heroically for her young. Watching a losing battle is heartbreaking. Do your part to make a difference. Please.

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Phenological Mismatch

What is phenological mismatch and why does it matter? 

The changing climate around the globe is causing many issues for species.


Read more from the New York Times: 

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Privileged Insight Into the Quiet Lives All Around us

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.

Nest JD02 with two eggs. Photo: J. Duff

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.

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Found a Peanut, Found a Peanut…

This morning, while on my way to attend a Whooping Crane Festival meeting (SAVE THE DATE! Sept 7 – 9), I turned to head through the quaint downtown area of Princeton, which follows the Fox River a bit.

As soon as I turned and looked out over the river I noticed two Whooping cranes in the distance so I pulled over to get a photo.

Zooming in on the display, I made out #4-14’s White/Red/White left leg. Peanut hasn’t been seen since February 25th in Kentucky so It’s always nice to confirm another crane has returned to the area.

I was a bit surprised, however, to see how he was with! Taking a closer look at the legbands, it’s yearling #7-17! Which begs the question, “Where is #3-17”? These two wintered together at Wheeler NWR near Decatur, Alabama and have been confirmed together since returning to Wisconsin.

Brooke and Colleen ventured out to try to get a signal on #3-17 and found her about 15 miles away in Marquette County, and fairly close to 3 year old female #27-14.

It’s like a soap opera out there!

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Traffic Circles

Take a look at the travels of siblings 4-17 and 6-17 over the past 4 days. 

Have you ever been stuck in a traffic circle because you missed your exit on the first, or even third time around? That’s what this reminded me of.

The GSM device worn by female 6-17 provides accurate location data.

It appears they flew over White River Marsh Saturday and didn’t even stop in to say hi…

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Breaking Glass

Cold mornings make walking through the marsh sound like you are breaking glass as we crush through a layer of ice. Just checking on one Sandhill nest to make sure it’s still active. One quick shot, then out so the parent gets back on the nest quickly.

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EMP UPdate Time!

Whooping Crane Update – May 1, 2018 

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. In the last month Whooping Cranes have started nesting season, despite an April snowstorm in Wisconsin. A huge thank-you to the staff of Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the whooping crane eastern migratory population.

Population Estimate

The current estimated population size is 102 (47 F, 52 M, 3 U). As of 1 May, at least 79 Whooping Cranes are in Wisconsin, 3 in Michigan, 3 in Illinois, and 1 in Iowa. The remaining birds’ locations have not been confirmed in the last month. See map below.


As of 1 May, we have one active Whooping Crane nest. The eggs were pulled from one nest as a part of a forced re-nesting management tool to avoid nest abandonment’s during the black fly hatch. 3-5 first nests at Necedah NWR were abandoned likely due to a snowstorm over the weekend of April 13-14 and a freezing of the marshes.

Incubating: 12-11 and 5-11 are currently incubating in Juneau Co, WI.

Forced re-nest: 14-08 and 24-08’s first eggs were pulled on 30 April.

Abandoned: Pairs 9-03/3-04, W1-06/1-10, 13-03/9-05, and likely also 36-09/18-03, 16-07/1-04 were incubating on 13 April prior to a snow storm, and as of 27 April were no longer incubating. 

2017 Wild-hatched chicks

W3_17 (U) is still in Adams Co, WI, likely with one other sub-adult.

W7_17 (F) left Edwards Co, IL and was last reported in Iowa Co, IA.

Parent-Reared 2017 Cohort

19_17 (M) and 25_17 (M) migrated back to Wisconsin, took a trip over to Dakota Co, MN, and are now back in WI in Polk Co.

28_17 (M) migrated back to Wisconsin and was last seen in Green Lake Co.

24_17 (M) has returned to Wisconsin and is currently in Walworth Co.

72_17 (M) migrated north to Jackson Co, MI.

30_17 (F) migrated back to Lake Co, IL, where her remains were collected on 23 April (see below).

38_17 (F) is still in Dodge Co, WI.

39_17 (F) migrated north to Michigan during April, but then made it back around Lake Michigan and is currently in Outagamie Co, WI.

36_17 (F) migrated back to Wisconsin and went all the way north to the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior and is now in Burnett Co, WI.

Costume-Reared 2017 Cohort

3_17 (M) and 7_17 (F) migrated back to Wisconsin and are currently in Green Lake Co.

4_17 (M) and 6_17 (F) migrated back to Wisconsin and are moving around a lot! They are currently in Washington County.

1_17 (M), 2_17 (F), and 8_17 (F) left Lawrence Co, TN and are currently in Peoria Co, IL.


30-17 died in Lake Co, IL, and her remains were collected on 23 April. Based on satellite telemetry, she likely died on or before 19 April. The cause of death appeared to be predation.

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Whoever it was that cautioned against putting all your eggs into one basket obviously never spent much time traipsing around a marsh trying to locate Sandhill crane nests.

It would be much easier to find them if they were in one location! 

Since last Saturday, Jeff Fox, Brooke, Colleen, Joe and yours truly have spent hours each day trudging through water, ice and black gooey muck. When we aren’t actually IN the marsh, we watch the marsh for a grey head with a red cap that might pop up just at the exact moment you’re watching a particular spot. 

You can’t look away because as soon as you do, up goes the head like that carnival game Whack-a-mole. 

A Sandhill playing peek-a-boo about a quarter mile away.

We also scan nearby fields for single Sandhills because if a single bird is present, well that could mean that its mate is in the marsh incubating and it might just be the owner of the head we’re waiting for to pop up to give away its nest location. 

Why, you ask, are we hoping to find Sandhill nests? We are carrying out a study at White River Marsh to evaluate nest success and fledging rates among the Sandhills in the area. If the Sandhills can breed and successfully raise young to fledging age, then there should be no reason their Whooping crane cousins can’t also be fruitful.

So we plan on finding nests, then when the chicks hatch, we will attempt to capture them and place these tiny transmitters on them, using a technique Jeff developed and has used successfully hundreds of times.

Transmitters weigh less than 3 grams.

Each transmitter is sewn into a piece of fabric, which has been colored to be the same color as a Sandhill crane chick. Once encased in fabric, they are then sewn onto a small square of the same fabric, which will be glued onto the back of the chick with eyelash glue – yes, eyelash glue (it dries very quickly and is waterproof). 

The battery life for these tiny units are 115 days, which will allow us to track the youngsters until they fledge, or die (but hopefully fledge!). 

So, we trudge through the mud – occasionally getting stuck (speaking from personal experience, not fun!) and occasionally finding a nest. So far, we have found four nests – and there are still three that are active. The first egg we found didn’t even appear to be in a formed nest. It was almost as if the female was just strolling through the marsh and dropped a random egg. 

An egg found simply sitting on top of the dried grasses.

When Jeff first found it, it was intact. Joe and I returned two days later, hoping to find a second egg but instead we found the first egg broken.

Jeff isn’t having much luck locating Sandhill nests in known nesting territories at Necedah and we should have located more than four nests by now. The only explanation is that everything seems to be slowed this year due to the cold weather and chances are, the 16-20 inches of snow the area received two weeks ago delayed nesting even further.

But we’ve had a few days of 50-60 degree weather so we’ll keep trudging and will update you in a few days to let you know how many nests we’ve found.

Jeff and Colleen return from checking a possible nest.

In the meantime, we have to thank everyone who very generously contributed all the items from our Amazon wish list! The chest waders and boots are incredibly comfortable and very easy to wear for the 10-12 hours a day we’re out in the field. The spotting scope is amazing and all the other equipment will be put to use once these little fluffers start hatching. Thanks so much!

If you would like to contribute to help fund our work this year, please click here

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Lake Michigan

Parent-Reared Whooping crane 39-17 was released at Horicon NWR last fall along with 38-17. Both females did not seem to form an association with other Whoopers and instead, spent time with Sandhills.

While 38-17 became the first ever Whooping crane in the Eastern Migratory Population to not head south for the winter, 39-17 did head south but only as far as Jasper County, Indiana.

This spring, she headed due north -finding herself on the wrong side of Lake Michigan.

For the past week she has been very slowly making her way south again and her hit from late yesterday confirms she figured it out and is now back on track and heading to Wisconsin!

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