When Is A Whooping Crane Not A Whooping Crane?

Along the Central Platte River in Nebraska, there is an annual congregation of hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes during the month of March.  For about two decades or so, there has also been a single whooping crane that appears to arrive and depart with those sandhill cranes.  There are various theories about why the whooper hangs around with sandhill cranes instead of its own kind, but most of us assume it is unaware of, or possibly uninterested in other whooping cranes.  We’re not really sure where it goes during the rest of the year, but it always shows up when the sandhill cranes come through each spring.

This whooping crane has been hanging out with sandhill cranes for about 20 years or more – assuming it’s the same bird each year.  It certainly stands out in a crowd, doesn’t it?  Unfortunately, it’s not the crowd it’s supposed to be hanging out with.

It’s kind of a sad situation, but does give visitors to this part of the state an improved chance of seeing a whooping crane.  Most whoopers migrate through this area later in the spring, after the sandhill cranes (and the crowds that come to watch them) have left.  A fairly small percentage of whooping cranes stop at the Platte each spring, and those that do stop are usually just here for a night or two, making it unlikely that many people will see them.  By contrast, the “lonely” whooper often stays for a few weeks or more, making it pretty accessible to grateful crane watchers.

As I was driving out for an early morning crane tour last weekend, I was thinking about the lonely whooping crane.  It had been hanging around near our viewing blinds along the river’s edge over the last week or two.  I knew there was a good chance we’d see the whooper on the river in front of our blinds (and we did!) but I was also thinking about something else.  What if the whooper left the river while we were in the viewing blind and landed in the grassland between the blind and where our vehicles were parked?  Since it’s a federal crime to disturb an endangered bird, we might be stuck in the blinds for a few extra hours, waiting for the whooping crane to leave.

When we first snuck into the blind, it was mostly dark, and most of the cranes were still asleep. We thought we saw something white in the sea of gray, but we had to wait until the light got a little stronger before we were sure of what we were seeing. The other two photographers with me had lenses longer than my arm (more on that later this week). This shot was taken with my puny little 18-300mm lens and then cropped liberally to make the whooper look bigger than a little white dot.

That discomforting thought led me down a rambling philosophical journey as I drove (did I mention it was early in the morning?) about whether or not that lonely bird should actually count as a whooping crane.  By law, of course, it does count, and there’s no question about that.  But what about in an existential sense?

The endangered species act is supposed to help populations of rare species recover, right?  We’ve added layers of protection for the remaining individuals of those rare species so they can survive and reproduce, increasing the size of their population.  But what if an individual is separated from its kind and doesn’t even recognize what it is?  If our lonely whooping crane has no chance of ever interacting with other whoopers, let alone reproducing, how should we categorize it?  Whooping cranes in zoos are physically removed from the wild population, but still have the potential to breed and create more whoopers, which could potentially be returned to the wild at some point.  The lonely whooping crane doesn’t seem to have that possibility.

After it woke up and stretched a little, the whooper wandered slowly upstream a quarter of a mile or more before we lost sight of it. It seemed to be walking completely alone – not following other birds. The sandhill cranes didn’t seem bothered by it, but also didn’t seem to interact with it in any way.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying the lonely whooping crane isn’t important, and I’m not advocating that it be somehow removed from its protected status under the law.  I just found it interesting to think about what it means to be part of a species.  Do you have to be a contributing member?  Is reproduction the way animals pay dues to their species?  If our lonely whooping crane isn’t really a whooping crane, what is it?

I can’t emphasize enough how early it was in the morning when I was thinking about this.  I often do my best thinking while driving, but I’m not sure this counts.  Also, I honestly feel grateful to have the opportunity to see whooping cranes (including this one) fairly regularly during their migration, and I probably shouldn’t take that for granted.  However, being grateful doesn’t mean I can’t allow my mind to wander into the realm of whooping crane existentialism, does it?

Photo of the Week – March 2, 2018

Over the last three days, I’ve given three presentations and led a workshop.  I think I’m running out of words.  There’s no question I’ve run out of the desire to be around people.  I say this in defense of what is going to be a late and very short post at the end of this long week.

I scanned quickly through my February photos tonight and found two that are very different in scale.  One from early February is a close up of a grazed plant in the snow.  The other is a shot of Sandhill cranes that have been pouring into the Platte River this week as part of their annual migration.  I hope you enjoy this very brief (and admittedly lazy) overview of February on the Platte River of Nebraska.  I’m going to bed.

Some kind of plant that was nipped off by some kind of animal. Stiff goldenrod? Rabbit? Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Sandhill cranes on a mostly frozen Platte River this week.

Photo of the Week – March 9, 2017

I hope I’ve made it clear through the years that I am really grateful to have my job.  During each March, one of the major perks is access to viewing blinds that allow a front row seat to watch migratory sandhill cranes on their overnight roost.  This morning, I took my wife, two of our kids, and my in-laws out to the Platte River to watch the cranes wake up.

Atticus braved a cold morning breeze in his face to watch cranes dance and loaf around before lifting off to go feed in fields and meadows for the day.
Our viewing blinds aren’t fancy, but they put you right at the edge of the river to watch one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.

Most crane viewing tours I lead each year are for our current or prospective members and donors, and I really enjoy helping people experience one of the best migratory bird phenomena in the world – especially when our guests are seeing it for the first time.  On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to beat sharing that same experience with my family.  Did I mention how fortunate I am?

This morning provided good crane viewing (we had around 1000 cranes in front of the blind and maybe another 10,000 or more within view), but it was far from the most spectacular visit I’ve had.  The cranes weren’t close enough to our blind for me to get fantastic photos, but I played around a little with my camera anyway.  Today wasn’t about photography though, it was about family time in nature, and in that regard, it was pretty near perfect.

You can read more about the crane migration through Nebraska’s Platte River, and see many more photos, in a couple of previous posts here and here.

A couple small groups of sandhill cranes roosting in the river prior to sun-up.
Early morning silhouettes.

 

PLANT GAME RESULTS

It’s not that I’m competitive, but I’ve decided that I’ll consider it a win when more of you guess a wrong answer than the right one in our Plant Game.  Using that criteria, I won twice this week.  In the first question, Earthsmoke got the most guesses as a fake plant (35%), but it’s actually a real plant (Fumaria officinalis), introduced from Europe, and present (though uncommon) in Nebraska.  The actual fake plant was Lady-of-the-Lake, which I totally made up.  To your credit, that got the second-most votes (32%).

For the second question, the fake plant was Mountain Oats, which sounds real enough that only 32% of you guessed it was fake.  Almost half of you (47%) guessed Raccoon Grape was the fake plant, though, and it’s actually a native vine that grows in eastern Nebraska (Ampelopsis cordata).  Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of chances to redeem yourselves in the future – but congratulations to those of you who guessed right!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog- Crane Commuters & Seed Stragglers

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

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I’m finally experiencing the much-extolled Nebraskan crane migration. Each morning, as if fleeing from the rising sun, thousands of Sandhill Cranes noisily fly west over my house as they leave their nighttime roosts on the Platte River. Throughout the day their trumpeting calls are a constant presence, and a welcome one after a winter where wind was the main sound. At sunset the cranes infallibly return from the cornfields, heading east towards the Platte. It’s a routine I’m really enjoying and trying to photograph as often and in as many ways as possible. Crane migration is so popular that many photos have become cliché, so I’m trying to put my own spin on it.

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When I pull my eyes away from the sky and look at the ground, I notice how worn the old seedheads are, so ready to fade away. Most seeds have finally dropped but a few remain, as if waiting to be absolutely sure that the winter is over before leaving their cozy shelters. Yesterday, with thin clouds creating excellent light for photography, I spent about an hour using my macro lens to highlight the surprising patterns and colors in these intricate little formations. It won’t be long before I can start photographing living plants again!

Illinois Bundleflower (Desmathus illinoensis)
Illinois Bundleflower (Desmathus illinoensis)
Stiff Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)
Stiff Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)

Photo of the Week – March 26, 2015

Despite snide comments from certain friends, I do – now and then – take photos of subjects other than insects and plants…

As I write this, the annual sandhill crane migration phenomenon is taking place on Nebraska’s Platte River.  The river valley abounds with tall gray birds feeding in crop fields and meadows and the sound of calling cranes fills the air.  I haven’t had a lot of time for crane photography this year, but have managed to pull the camera out of its bag a few times.  A couple weeks ago, for example, I was in a riverbank viewing blind with a group of birdwatchers, watching cranes coming in to their river roost against a rose-colored post-sunset sky.  The muted light made photography difficult, but I managed a few photos, including the one below.

Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight.  Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.
Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight. Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.

After the light and color faded a little more that evening, I decided to try a short video.  If you have never been to the Platte River during this time of year, this will give you a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to watch cranes coming to the river in the evening.

Watching cranes drop into the river at sunset is fun, but I prefer to visit them in the early morning as the roosting birds start to wake up and get ready for the day.  We have to sneak into the blind well before daylight and it’s often difficult to tell how many birds are on the river until the growing light slowly reveals their shadowy outlines.  On a good morning, we may have 10-20,000 birds or more within view as the sun comes up.  The sight and sound of those birds is astounding.  As the sun rises and the air warms up, the activity level of the birds increases, and we get to see a great deal of social behavior – preening, pair-bonding and courtship “dancing”, and aggressive posturing.  The short video below documents that kind of increasing activity through one morning this spring.

I am grateful to have a front row seat to an annual ecological phenomenon that draws birdwatchers and nature lovers from around the globe.  The sound of sandhill crane calls is a pretty great soundtrack to my spring.  The only regret I have is that the majority of crane-watchers never get to see the Platte River Prairies during the summer when – though we have no cranes around – our grasslands are teeming with the sights and sound of birds, insects, flowers, and generally spectacular prairie life.  Please come visit!

Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.
Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  March 2015.

 

Photo of the Week – April 3, 2014

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.

Canada geese, some wigeon, and a few other ducks sit on the restored wetland in March of this year.  This is a common sight, and a good one, but I was always hoping for more than just ducks and geese to use the wetland.
Canada geese, some wigeon, and a few other ducks sit on the restored wetland in March of this year. This is a common sight, and a good one, but I was always hoping for more than just ducks and geese to use the wetland.

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.

Three sandhill cranes stand in the middle of the wetland on March 8 of this year.
Three sandhill cranes stand in the middle of the wetland on March 8 of this year.  You can click on the photo to see a larger version of it.

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!

A flock of 70-80 sandhill cranes stands in shallow water at 7pm on March 11.
A flock of 70-80 sandhill cranes stands in shallow water at 7pm on March 11.

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At 7am the next morning, the cranes are still there - maybe more of them, in fact.  Our first real crane roost, that we know of.
At 7am the next morning, the cranes are still there – maybe more of them, in fact. Our first real crane roost… that we know of.

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?

 

2014 Sandhill Crane Migration – Platte River, Nebraska

March is always a busy time on Nebraska’s Platte River.  It’s the beginning of prime prescribed fire season, of course, and a good time to work on fence repair and tree clearing projects.  But there’s no question that sandhill cranes rule the month.

The early morning scene on the Platte River in March.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river...
The early morning scene on the Platte River last week.  Note the abundance of feathers floating down the river…

About 600,000 sandhill cranes spend a good portion of late February, March, and early April along the Platte River before heading north to nesting grounds.  It’s one of the greatest migratory phenomena in the world, and it happens right in our backyard.  Because of that, our staff spends quite a bit of time taking groups of people into our viewing blinds where we watch the cranes land on the river at sunset and take off again in the morning.  It’s an important fundraising opportunity for The Nature Conservancy, and a way to show our Nebraska members what we’ve been working on and thank them for their support.  It’s really gratifying to watch the reaction of people as they see the crane spectacle for the first time.

My son Daniel got his first trip to a crane blind on his birthday this year.  It was very cold, but he was still glad to go.
My son Daniel got to take his first trip to a crane blind on his 10th birthday this year. It was very cold, but he still had a great time.

Because I’m in the blinds fairly frequently, I get quite a few opportunities to photograph cranes – though the number of nights and mornings when the light is favorable can be limited.  Also, I’m really not a wildlife photographer, either in terms of my equipment or aptitude.  Despite that, I usually end up with a few decent photos by the end of each season, though not as many as I should.

This year, I also tried to get some video footage of the cranes – something I have even less experience with and aptitude for than wildlife photography!  Also, my only video camera is the video function on my Nikon D300s SLR camera, and I’m still learning to use it.

You can see two of my attempts by clicking on the links below:

Video 1 – Cranes preparing to leave the river on a cold morning.  This 30 second clip gives you a feel for the density, activity, and noise of a crane roost.

Video 2 – Cranes chasing each other around on a sand bar.  There is a lot of jumping and chasing among cranes.  Some of it is courtship and pair bonding, some of it is just posturing.  This clip is about 30 seconds long.

 

Silhouettes against the evening sky.
Silhouettes against the evening sky.

In the evenings, the cranes often wait to come to the river until it is getting dark, making photography difficult.  In those cases, the best photo opportunities are usually silhouettes of the birds against the sky as they drop into the river.  On nights when the light is nice and our guests are fully engaged watching the big event, I manage to snap off a few shots.  Both close-ups on a few birds at a time and more wider views can be attractive.

Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.
Sandhill cranes coming to the river after sunset.

This year, my favorite image was the first shot I took one evening.  The sunset was beautiful and the cranes were parachuting gracefully toward the water as I poked my camera lens out the window of the blind.  The resulting photo reminded me of the theme song to a 1980’s TV show – The Greatest American Hero.

"Believe it or not, I'm walking on air..."   Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.
“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air…” Cranes floating down to the river at sunset.

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Bonus Coverage

On one of the crane tours I led this spring, I met 11-year-old Jack McDowall and his dad.  Jack is a fellow blogger who is working on a year-long project to photograph and document his bird sightings.  I think many of you would enjoy his photos and the natural history information he includes along with them – including a post from his trip to our viewing blind.  If you’d like to visit his blog, you can link to it here.

 

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – March 2014

This is a guest post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows.

After a few months with very little fresh air, we have been busy getting ready for the crane and burn seasons here on the Platte. Anne and I have been trucking along with our research project reports, but I’m thrilled to be using my body again. We have been learning and hearing about the crane migration and spring burns for nine months now, and they are both finally here! I thought I’d share what we’ve been doing to prepare for these events.

CRANE BLIND PREP

Anne takes down old weathered burlap off the front of a blind. We cover the outside of the blinds with burlap and cut peepholes at different heights so that we can watch the birds without them knowing. Photo by Eliza.
Anne takes down old weathered burlap off the front of a blind. We cover the outside of the blinds with burlap and cut peepholes at different heights so that we can watch the birds without them knowing. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson shows me that to get the best views, we need to cut all of the vegetation that can be seen from any angle inside the blind. Photo by Eliza.
Nelson shows me that to get the best views, we need to cut all of the vegetation that can be seen from any angle inside the blind. Photo by Eliza.

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We used a beaver blade (weed whacker with a chainsaw chain on the bottom) to cut down the vegetation in front of the blinds. Photo by Eliza.
We used a beaver blade (weed whacker with a saw blade on the bottom) to cut down the vegetation in front of the blinds. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson sweeps cobwebs, bird poo and old nests off of the blind interior. Photo by Eliza.
Nelson sweeps cobwebs, bird poo and old nests off of the blind interior. Photo by Eliza.

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BURN UNIT PREP

Burn breaks are essential for conducting prescribed fires. We mow a 20ft swath around each burn unit and then rake these areas to keep fires contained and away from property lines. By mowing and raking, we are removing the majority of fuels that a fire needs to burn, which allows us to control where and how the fire moves. I went to mow our Miller property and encountered thousands of cranes getting their protein fix from insects and earthworms right inside of our burn unit. We decided to continue with our work anyway. The birds lifted off right in front of me. Photo by Eliza.
Burn breaks are essential for conducting prescribed fires. We mow a 20ft swath around each burn unit and then rake these areas to keep fires contained and away from property lines. By mowing and raking, we are removing the majority of fuels that a fire needs to burn, which allows us to control where and how the fire moves. I went to mow our Miller property and encountered thousands of cranes getting their protein fix from insects and earthworms right inside of our burn unit. We decided to continue with our work anyway. The birds lifted off right in front of me. Photo by Eliza.

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Nelson sharpens the blades on the shredder after several days of mowing.  Photo by Eliza.
Nelson sharpens the blades on the shredder after several days of mowing. Photo by Eliza.

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FIRE REFRESHER

Land management professionals from various agencies and organizations got together at the Whooping Crane Trust for an annual fire refresher course. In this photo, Nelson is giving a presentation on fire equipment and safety. Photo by Eliza.
Land management professionals from various agencies and organizations got together at the Whooping Crane Trust for an annual fire refresher course. In this photo, Nelson is giving a presentation on fire equipment and safety. Photo by Eliza.

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Everybody practiced deploying a fire shelter. Fire shelters are a last resort for surviving intense radiant or convective heat in an entrapment situation when a fire becomes inescapable. Actual fire shelters are made with layers of aluminum foil and fiberglass, but they can each be used only once so these green tarp replicas are used during trainings. Photo by Chris Helzer.
Everybody practiced deploying a fire shelter. Fire shelters are a last resort for surviving intense radiant or convective heat in an entrapment situation when a fire becomes inescapable. Actual fire shelters are made with layers of aluminum foil and fiberglass, but they can each be used only once so these green tarp replicas are used during trainings. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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We also participated in sand table exercises, in which a moderator gives a team of professionals with different levels of field experience a burn plan and written scenarios to work through by constructing a burn unit on the sand table, given different variables (wind direction, terrain, etc.). It was really helpful for newbies like Anne and I to work with more seasoned firefighters to learn how to respond safely to various conditions. Photo by Eliza.
We also participated in sand table exercises, in which a moderator gives a team of professionals with different levels of field experience a burn plan and written scenarios to work through by constructing a burn unit on the sand table, given different variables (wind direction, terrain, etc.). It was really helpful for newbies like Anne and I to work with more seasoned firefighters to learn how to respond safely to various conditions. Photo by Eliza.

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In order to complete the certification for becoming a Type 2 firefighter, we had to pass either the “arduous” or “moderate” pack test, which involves walking 3 miles in under 45 minutes carrying 45lbs or walking 2 miles in under 30 minutes carrying 25lbs (respectively). We wore weight vests to distribute the weight evenly on our upper bodies. It was great team bonding, but most of us were pretty sore the next day. From right to left, Anne Stine, Eliza Perry, volunteer firefighter Anne Troyer, Mardell Jasnowski and Nelson Winkel. Photo by Chris Helzer.
In order to complete the certification for becoming a Type 2 firefighter, we had to pass either the “arduous” or “moderate” pack test, which involves walking 3 miles in under 45 minutes carrying 45lbs or walking 2 miles in under 30 minutes carrying 25lbs (respectively). We wore weight vests to distribute the weight evenly on our upper bodies. It was great team bonding, but most of us were pretty sore the next day. From right to left, Anne Stine, Eliza Perry, volunteer firefighter Anne Troyer, Mardell Jasnowski and Nelson Winkel. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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The Platte River Prairies crew hosted our own field day to practice using each of the hand tools and slip-on water pumps before we begin burning regularly. We learned techniques for laying wet lines and mopping up using both the truck and ATVs. Laying a wet line refers to spraying water (or foam or other fire retardant) ahead of the igniter along the inside of the burn break for an extra layer of protection; mopping up in this case means following behind the igniter and making sure the fire does not cross into the burn break. We will also need to master backing up ATVs with 200 gallons of water in tow. Here, Anne lays a wet line and I’m trying to stay at an appropriate distance in the truck. Photo by Chris Helzer.
The Platte River Prairies crew hosted our own field day to practice using each of the hand tools and slip-on water pumps before we begin burning regularly. We learned techniques for laying wet lines and mopping up using both the truck and ATVs. Laying a wet line refers to spraying water (or foam or other fire retardant) ahead of the igniter along the inside of the burn break for an extra layer of protection; mopping up in this case means following behind the igniter and making sure the fire does not cross into the burn break. We will also need to master backing up ATVs with 200 gallons of water in tow. Here, Anne lays a wet line and I’m trying to stay at an appropriate distance in the truck. Photo by Chris Helzer.

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SANDHILL CRANE VIEWING TOURS

I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN MY WHOLE LIFE. It is absolutely breathtaking to see and hear thousands of these beautiful creatures all together. I have been leading tours most nights and a few mornings this past week, and on three of these occasions the birds were right in front of our blind. I found that I really enjoy watching the antics of just one bird at a time, bending gracefully to poke around in the sand or within their feathers. Their gait and coloring give them an especially regal appearance. They strut around among their companions and make the most beautiful racket I’ve ever heard. Several Nebraskans have told me crane calls signify spring to them. I like that much better than mud, the only indication of spring in Maine. Check out Anne Stine’s recent post for a more in-depth description
I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS IN MY WHOLE LIFE. It is absolutely breathtaking to see and hear thousands of these beautiful creatures all together. I have been leading tours most nights and a few mornings this past week, and on three of these occasions the birds were right in front of our blind. I found that I really enjoy watching the antics of just one bird at a time, bending gracefully to poke around in the sand or within their feathers. Their gait and coloring give them an especially regal appearance. They strut around among their companions and make the most beautiful racket I’ve ever heard. Several Nebraskans have told me crane calls signify spring to them. I like that much better than mud, the only indication of spring in Maine. Check out Anne Stine’s recent post for a more in-depth description of her crane viewing experiences.  Photo by Eliza.

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A slightly crooked shot by Eliza.
A slightly crooked shot by Eliza.

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Sunset over the Platte River. Photo by Eliza.
Sunset over the Platte River. Photo by Eliza.

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Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Cranes and Blind Mice

The sandhill cranes have returned for their annual visit to the Platte River of Nebraska, one of the greatest migratory phenomena in the world.  The following is a guest post by Hubbard Fellow Anne Stine:

Have you ever been scolded by a deer mouse? I have.  That was just one of the new experiences I’ve shared with visitors in the past few weeks, now that the cranes have returned to the Platte River Valley.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River in Nebraska.  March 2007.
Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River in Nebraska. March 2007.

I actually got scolded twice. When a deer mouse scolds you, it sounds like a cheeping bird:  “ZHee zeezezezezeze”. That mouse was so put-out that her rumpus-room (our crane blind) was filled with people, she stuck her head out of a hole in the wall and twittered at us to scram. I cannot imagine that telling-off a roomful of large predators is evolutionarily adaptive to a small mammal, but evidently even mice can be curmudgeons.

Our group of large predators was gathered in the blind to stalk cranes. The snow geese, Canada geese, and Sandhill cranes have all returned to the Platte River.  If you angle your neck to look straight up in the sky, you can see threads of birds waving and intersecting with the breeze. Their numbers are unlike anything I’ve seen back east. The way they ride the wind at different heights, so you see and hear layers of their lines crossing in the air, is totally mesmerizing.

The night before last the cranes roosted directly downriver of our large blind.  At first, we weren’t sure we’d get to see any of these birds up close. Whirlpools of birds circled and landed below the western horizon, their skinny long legs stretched out in front of them.  They flew low overhead, but they didn’t seem to find what they were looking for in a roost on our part of the river. A lonely Canada goose stuck her neck straight up and honked at the sky, trying in vain to call down companions.

Then, as the sky was just beginning to darken, four cranes landed on a sand bar about 50 feet down stream of our building.  At first they just stood around, sometimes pacing in their goofy prancing walk, as if waiting for their cue. More cranes passed overhead, but continued to settle downstream. Finally, a line of cranes heading east noticed their comrades loitering down below. They trilled loudly and initiated their descent, wings cupped like a parachutist and legs stretched out. After the first large group settled with our four pioneering friends on the near sandbar, the population of cranes downriver swelled and built upon itself. Cranes are gregarious birds, so a few trendsetters can determine where everyone sleeps for the night.

Looking out the crane blind, cranes flying by.  Photo by Anne Stine.
Looking out the crane blind, cranes flying by. Photo by Anne Stine.

Cranes may roost on the river, but they don’t linger there all day- they have work to do. The next day we were mowing and raking burn breaks in our prairies when we heard a party going on in the trees at the north end. The cranes were feasting along the stream! Half the flock would rise and trill, and then settle, while the ones on the ground poked around, looking for invertebrates.  We worried about flushing them from their daytime hunting grounds, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much as long as our machinery kept moving.

Seeing these pre-historic goofballs reminds me that spring is upon us, and soon I’ll be trading my hot tea for lemonade and my fuzzy robe for a hammock in the yard. I can’t wait.

Photo of the Week – March 7, 2013

It’s March, which means the sandhill cranes are back on the Central Platte River.  Every spring, the entire mid-continent population of sandhill cranes (500,000-650,000 birds) comes to the Platte River to spend several weeks fueling up for the rest of their northward migration and breeding season.

Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River, just north of The Nature Conservancy's Studnicka tract.  2007 photo.
Sandhill cranes roosting on the Platte River, just north of The Nature Conservancy’s Studnicka tract. 2007 photo.

Interestingly, we seem to have fewer cranes right now (March 7) than we did in mid-February back in 2012.  The vagaries of weather – both here and in the wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico – help drive the timing of migration.  I’m not sure exactly what cues they’re using to make their decisions, but apparently there is less urgency to leave the south this year. 

While the cranes are a little slow to arrive, vast numbers of snow geese, along with other geese and ducks, are making up for them.  The skies are full of birds and their calls, making it pretty nice to work outside (and, conversely, hard to stay inside.)

Spring is coming!