Happy to be WRONG!

A month or so ago I wrote about the flooding we we having and how sad it was to watch our Lois’ Pond pair of Sandhill Cranes desperately shore up their nest. She was off the eggs for 6 or 7 hours and I was not holding out much hope of seeing chicks from this pair, even though over this last month she was on the nest every time we peeked.

We knew if the eggs were viable they would be hatching Saturday or Sunday because Brooke and I watched them pick the spot and build the nest. We knew when she started brooding.

Monday morning we got to Lois’s Pond, Brooke peeked from the trees, ready to sneak to the nest and I watched from nearby. We both saw them at the same time and I have never been so happy to be wrong!

Two adult Sandhills in the field tending something tiny in the tall grass. We headed in oh so carefully. Remember my post about watching grass growing? After a ten minute search this is what we found! 

This is why we must be careful when looking for a tiny crane colt. It’s easy to step on them as they hunker down in the vegetation. Photo: C. Chase

The whole procedure took about 15 minutes and when we drove by a half hour later the little family was together again.

Introducing BP2.1 Photo: C. Chase

What a nice way to start the week!

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Henry and his Gal Pal

Whooping crane #5-12 hasn’t had much luck in the love department. He’s had a couple of ladies stolen from him over the past year or two so now that he’s been associating with female #67-15, I think we all have our fingers crossed that this one will “stick.”

It may be a tad early for this new pair to nest but if he can manage to hang onto her until next spring, we may just see a little Henry or two on the landscape at White River Marsh.

Lois and Ed Wargulla live near the marsh and frequently see Whooping cranes in the fields adjacent their home. In fact, either can probably tell you the goings on of these birds better than we can.

Lois is the person that named Henry so we thought it only fitting to ask her what his new gal’s name is and after giving it about 30 seconds worth of thought, she said “Patty”!

So, Here are a couple of photos I captured of Henry and Patty in flight a couple of weeks ago.

Four wings are better than two?

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Shorebirds, the World’s Greatest Travelers

On a trip to Florida years ago, I walked along the beach marveling at the shorebirds and giggling as they ran away from a wave and then just as quickly ran back as it receded to poke in the wet sand for tasty morsels.

They were such a pleasure to watch, so busy in their task, that humans walking by were of no concern to them. If they only knew how much damage those humans are doing to their coastal environment, they might not be so tolerant.

These birds are really long distance travelers with many migrating from the top of the world to the bottom of the world, often with only one break per trip. 

As I read the following article from the New York Times, I was amazed at their resilience and the conditions they have to endure.

Learn more…

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Did You Find it?

Here is either 3-14 or 4-12 incubating at White River Marsh.

The area where this pair has chosen to nest this season is within 80 meters of their nest location last year but it is surrounded by more vegetation and water. Unfortunately, for us this means no matter where we place our LIVE streaming camera, we just can’t see the nesting activities.

We hope the new nest location makes it more difficult for predators to approach the nest.

The CraneCam has been placed near the area where the pair typically feeds during the day and we’ve been fortunate to see one-at-a-time feeding occasionally since we deployed the camera two weeks ago.

In fact, the last time we saw both adult cranes together foraging in the camera area was on May 2nd and incubation can take between 30-33 days so we should have a hatch very soon.

The foraging area is approximately 600 meters from the nest location so we’re also hoping they will eventually lead their young chick(s) to this area where we’ll have a better chance of seeing them.

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Can you Spot the Crane?

Below is an aerial photo which shows either female 3-14 or male 4-12 on their nest. Can you spot the incubating Whooping crane?

Tune in tomorrow to see if you are correct!

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Wildlife Detectives

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, officially known as JD2.1 is roughly 10-days of age.

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.

A small square of fabric which has a tiny transmitter sewn into it, is placed on the chick using glue. It will eventually fall off.

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.

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Hide & Seek

It has been a wet Spring here in Wisconsin. First a late blizzard then lots of rain.

About 2 weeks ago, every growing thing burst into green, and is now growing so fast, I swear at the end of the day you can see that it’s higher than it was in the morning.

Sandhill cranes bring their tiny chicks to grassy, upland areas to forage.

This makes searching for Sandhill crane chicks a challenge and an exercise in patience.

Jeff and Joe won Friday’s game!

The latest capture. Meet JD1.1


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OM Recognized

Operation Migration is honored to have been among members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership awarded a 2018 Special Recognition Award from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology at their annual convention held last weekend.

Accepting on behalf of the partnership were:

Joe Duff & Heather Ray, Operation Migration
Anne Lacy, International Crane Foundation
Davin Lopez, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Brad Strobel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 
Robert Doyle, U.S.G.S Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology Awards Program recognizes individuals or organizations that have made outstanding achievements in advancing bird conservation, promoting the field of ornithology, and contributing to the Society.


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Life at the OM Office and Raising a Brood

Having recently been tasked with the job of producing an occasional journal entry, I’m always on the lookout for articles pertaining to birds or the environment that I think our readers might find interesting and informative. I could certainly write a journal entry about my daily life at OM but it really isn’t as exciting as the life the rest of the team leads. My drive to work takes me about 15 minutes, with hopefully a “quick” stop at the local Tim Hortons for my coffee.

I sit down, turn on my computer, answer emails, return phone calls if there are any messages on the answering machine and do all the bookkeeping/office work, which varies from day to day. Then I go home. Not very exciting when you compare it to slogging through a marsh looking for nests. Or stories about port-a-potty; although we have had our plumbing issues at the office but you don’t want to hear about that!

Don’t misunderstand, I love my job and other than wishing I could join the team for exactly ONE day of slogging in the marsh just to see what it’s like, I’m happy to sit here on dry land, minus bugs and other hazards to go home to my own bed at the end of the day. One of the benefits I have been gifted is, I’m learning a lot more about the bird world than I used to know. Articles that I might have skimmed in the past because of time constraints, I now get to fully read. Soon I’m going to be a walking encyclopedia that I’m sure will drive my family nuts. But if I choose the science category in Trivial Pursuit (remember that game?) they’d better watch out!

Enough about me. The most recent article I read about robins raising their brood, armed me with new knowledge I didn’t know before. Such as they often raise more than one clutch a year and have an assembly line process to their parenting skills…

READ more…

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Catching Cranes

Last week we tasked you with finding a tiny Sandhill crane chick in a photograph and mentioned we were going to attempt to capture it to place a transmitter on it.

Well, you accomplished your task and I’m pleased to say so did we!

This feisty 3-week old Sandhill crane chick appears to want to eat Jeff. Photo: H. Ray

Jeff, Brooke, Joe and I planned our approach: Brooke and I walked into the field from the south, while Jeff and Joe approached from the road to the east. There was a marsh near the road and we didn’t want the parents to lead the chick into the marsh when they spotted us.

As we drew near, the two adults flew off and we began searching for the chick in the vegetation. After about 20 minutes Brooke spotted it hunkered down in the grasses and scooped it up.

The first order of business is to place it in a clean pillowcase to get a weight on it. This little critter weighed in at 665 grams. By comparison, the first chick we captured and radio-marked was 110 grams – waaaay smaller.

Next Brooke held the chick while Jeff and Joe prepared and placed the 2.2 gram transmitter on the chicks’ back. It will be held in place by eyelash glue until it eventually falls off. The battery life on these tiny transmitters is 115 days – plenty of time to learn if it survives to fledge.

The fabric patch containing the tiny transmitter has been colored to be the same color as the chick. Photo: H. Ray

Once the transmitter is in place, we measured the tarsus, which, along with the mass, will give us a good idea of the age of this chick. This guy had a tarsus measurement of 11 centimeters, making him/her approximately 3 weeks of age. This also means its parents continued to incubate during the mid-April storm. Impressive!

In total, we had this little fluffball in hand for less than 6 minutes. Once he was ready to be released, Brooke carried him about 15 feet away and placed his feet on the ground.

It didn’t take long before he ran away from the four of us scary humans. 

Off he goes! 

We’re happy to report both mom and dad returned to join him after approximately 15 minutes!

How Birds-To-Be Get Oxygen Inside Eggs

As we begin our new season watching and waiting for Whooper and Sandhill chicks to hatch a timely article came across my desk. The following article and amazing video explains how birds get oxygen inside their egg.

Two Sandhill crane eggs. Photo: J. Duff

Watch this video and prepare to be amazed!

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Camp Whatdaheckyadoin

When we moved to the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, the Wisconsin DNR had just purchased an old farmstead on County Road D. Their plan was to knock down the worn out buildings and restore the tall grass prairie, but they agreed to keep some of the amenities and let us camp there temporarily.

One of the many artesian wells in the area happened to be at the end of the long driveway so water was free. The electrical service was still intact so we took over the payments and installed some 50 amp breakers for our RVs. They had not yet demolished the concrete silo but readily agreed to leave it standing when we asked if we could use it to elevate our receiving antenna for our live camera. Pushing over a fifty foot tall cement silo is daunting and I think they were happy for the postponement.

County Rd. D must have been an old homesteader’s trail that zig-zagged from farm to farm. Eventually, it was widened to accommodate wagons and then cars. It is now paved but it still meanders in unexplained curves and bends across open and flat terrain.

The family that owned this property still lives in the area. In fact, they rent a few of the surrounding fields from the DNR and plant crops every year. Periodically, one or the other drops in to say hi and share local background. We know the history of record floods and late snow storms and where to find morels in the spring. Alvin, one of the family patriarchs passed away last winter and we are sorry for their loss.

We start our early mornings just around sunrise by pulling on chest waders and we generally don’t take them off until it is time for dinner. Jeff Fox has been studying Sandhill productivity for many years and coached us through what type to get. His experience helped because the waders he suggested are surprisingly comfortable. Over the waders we wear nylon pants to save them from thorn perforations and then we pull on marsh boots for better footing. It’s easy to tell we are working near a large wetland complex in central Wisconsin. We can walk into Walmart in full waders and wet to the waist and no one blinks an eye. At home we would be ushered to the plumbing department under the assumption that our basement was flooded.

Our Amazon Wish List generated a lot of interest and we are forever grateful to all our supporters who purchased everything we need. We have new backpacks filled with all the essentials like eyelash glue, beard trimmers and little spray bottles of alcohol. The glue is gentle and non-toxic for attaching a transmitter to the down feathers on the back of the chicks. The beard trimmers are used if we ever need to take it off. If a chick gets too hot while we are holding them, isopropyl alcohol sprayed on its legs will help with cooling. Other pack items are Ziploc bags for collecting samples, a collapsible net in case the chick is just too fast and bug spray for the annoying type, plus bug jackets for when they get more serious.

It has been amazing to watch the marsh come alive. Our first trips into the wetland were aided by a layer of ice under the cattails. Insulated by the dried reeds from the seventy degree temperatures, that hard layer made walking possible where later travel would be a tiresome struggle. Even now after the ice is gone, we can navigate more easily than later in the summer.

In this photo you can see the hummocks of grass just starting to sprout. Over the years they have formed a root ball that will support your weight if you place your foot just right. The water between each plant is a foot and a half deep, plus another foot or more of mud before you hit something you could approximate as solid. We use ski poles for balance as we jump from one hummock to the next in a bizarre game of hop-scotch played with waders – and consequences. Later in the season when all those grasses get tall enough, their tops will overlap until they form a closed, waist-high landscape. The game will become more entertaining when you can’t see your feet.

That inaccessibility is ideal for nesting birds. In fact, being too low to drain and too hard to reach is likely why some wetlands have remained relatively untouched.

Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) now dot the marsh in some of the small open areas.

Each day that we wander through the marsh brings an incremental change. We started when it was patched with snow and we watched as the shoots of grass slowly turned green and little marsh flowers began to bloom to the chorus of frogs and the singing of birds.

One of the hundreds of Bobolinks in the marsh.

The bobolinks have arrived and are so raucous, it’s hard to hear the faint beep of our transmitters. Heather says it reminds her of jazz – no words and no rhythm. Just a collection of random sounds played at high volume. I think she likes bobolinks – but jazz – not so much.

Moving through the marsh in isolation from almost everything human is an incredible experience. We are accustomed to flying over it but there is much more to see at ground level and a slower pace. One major factor that adds to the inaccessibility of the marsh has not yet emerged and we are very grateful.

Despite the warm temperatures we have had for the last three weeks, the mosquitoes still haven’t hatched. There is plenty of water for breeding and I suspect it’s going to be a horrible year. Or maybe the last snow and hard freeze killed off their eggs. Somehow, I don’t think we will be that lucky.

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Did You Spot the Chick?

This little fluff ball turned up on Tuesday this week with Mom and Dad Sandhill and we hope to tag him/her today.

See its little head poking out of the dandelions? (Click photo to enlarge)

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Can You Spot the Crane Chick?

Tune in tomorrow to see if you have eagle eyes!

Can you see it? (Click on photo to enlarge)

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Birds are the Original Ultralights

Humans have been fascinated by flight since their earliest writings, and accounts of attempts to master the airways are scattered throughout history. Using kites and gliders, early pilots (sort of) conquered the air. Budding engineers watched birds and tried to emulate them, all the while missing two critical elements — a powerful engine and an extremely lightweight design.

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