This week, I present four photographs from one of the timelapse cameras along a restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies. All four photographs were taken automatically by the camera, and none are particularly striking images, artistically speaking.
Nice sales job, eh?
Despite their quality as images, or lack thereof, they are very meaningful photographs to me. In fact, the two photos of least photographic quality are actually the two I like best because they tell a story I’ve been hoping for since we first started the wetland restoration project more than 10 years ago.
When we first started talking about converting a long sand pit lake (left over after sand and gravel mining operations from early last century) into something different, we had several objectives. Those included:
- removing the trees around the edge of the site to improve habitat for open-grassland and wetland wildlife species.
- providing shallow stream and wetland habitat for fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates (including mussels), and other species.
- restoring diverse plant communities including emergent wetland, wet meadow, wet-mesic, and upland sand prairie communities.
- providing habitat for migratory whooping and sandhill cranes and many other waterbird species with similar habitat requirements.
The first three objectives were pretty easy, and we’ve seen abundant evidence of success. In terms of bird habitat, we’ve always had great utilization of the site by ducks, geese, herons, snipe and other birds during both migration and breeding season. But no cranes.
Until this spring.
The chance that one of (approximately) 260 whooping cranes will ever land in this particular wetland is very remote, but I have been expecting to see sandhill cranes using the site; if not for overnight roosting habitat, at least as a place to feed and loaf during the day. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes here each spring – surely some of them should see this as an attractive place to hang out now and then. And if we see sandhill cranes using the site, we can reasonably assume that it’s suitable for whooping cranes too (though that’s not universally true).
However, during the 10 years since we started the restoration work, I’ve been looking in vain for a crane of any sort, or even tracks that would indicate they’d been there. Nothing. Last year, we had timelapse cameras up during the spring crane migration season but they malfunctioned and didn’t give me any evidence one way or the other. But this year, I finally got what I wanted.
I downloaded images from the cameras in mid-March and immediately scanned through them in the truck, hoping to see some evidence of crane use and – there they were! Three sandhill cranes showed up in multiple photos over the period of a couple weeks. Most of the photos were daytime photos, but it also appears they roosted overnight at least a few times, standing in the shallow water. Three cranes is certainly not evidence that we’ve added significantly to bird conservation, but it is evidence that our wetland isn’t completely abhorrent to cranes – and that’s a good start.
Then, as I kept looking through the images, I got an even better surprise. Late in the evening on March 11, there was a whole flock of cranes standing in the shallow wetland, apparently preparing to roost. Even better, the camera picked them up again early the next morning – pretty solid evidence that they roosted overnight. It only happened once (through mid-March) but I’ll take it!
The pictures aren’t of terrific quality. They were taken by a camera set to fire every hour on the hour (during daylight hours) and low light and wind combined to the images a little blurry. Nevertheless, I think they’re pretty great photos.
Of course, now that I’ve gotten my evidence of crane use, my scientist brain is kicking in and asking questions. Why did the cranes only roost one night? Why that particular night? Why did they pick that particular part of the wetland?
And, there’s one more question my brain is asking, which I’m trying to ignore because I don’t think it’ll ever happen.
…Will we ever see a big white crane in one of those photos?