Category Archives: birds

Whooping Crane Migration

Some good news:

237 whooping cranes arrive at wildlife refuge; more expected

The refuge in question is Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. More details:

The return of the whooping cranes is well under way, with 237 birds back at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services whooping crane coordinator Tom Stehn said Friday that 199 adults and 38 juvenile birds, were spotted during a flyover on Wednesday.

The birds began the winter migration to the refuge in October.

Stehn and refuge biologist Brad Strobel counted the birds, finding 211 in the salt marsh habitat, 18 in the shallow open bay, five on uplands in areas rooted out by feral hogs on Matagorda Island and three on grazed pasture oak savannah uplands at Welder Flats.

The cranes are feeding heavily on blue crabs and wolf berries. Both of these food items were abundant in November, Stehn said.

I had the privilege to spot a small group of four whooping cranes during their migration in October, 2009 as they passed through Wisconsin (the bulk of the population lives west of here, so numbers here are typically not very high). It was an amazing thing, I could almost not believe my eyes.

Then, earlier this year when the big oil spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico, I became concerned due to how many of these, and other birds, spend their winters in marshes along the coast. Even with a successful cleanup (which I am highly unsure of, after all, when does the press ever tell us the truth?), there still would have been substantial damage to those ecosystems, potentially impacting food supplies for these overwintering birds. Not just whooping cranes, but herons and egrets of all types, and others I can’t even begin to list. Many species also stop in that area to rest, prior to continuing their migration across the Gulf to Central or South America. It’s really a key spot in terms of the ecology of migratory birds for a substantial part of North America, and perhaps one of the worst possible locations for a major oil spill.

But, in any case, a few hundred whooping cranes have at least arrived safely, so for those we can at least hope they manage to tough it out this winter safely.

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An Exceptional Day

I saw a group of four Whooping Cranes yesterday. What a surprise! I could hardly believe my luck.

I was on a photo excursion/hike at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, had been outside for the better part of an hour already, and was nearing the end of the trail. I was a little tired (I am so out of shape it’s ridiculous) and I came really close to walking right by them without even realizing what they were! Horicon Marsh is heavily populated by Great Egrets, which are very beautiful, large, white birds, but they are so common that I’ve gotten kind of blas√© about them sometimes. So when I saw four large white birds over a ways along the trail, that’s what I initially assumed they were, and went about my business shooting wide angle landscape shots (I actually have a couple of shots with small, white specks, i.e. Whooping Cranes, in the background, heheheh). I didn’t even have the right lens on my camera to look at them—for the day, I had decided to use the D40 kit lens, complete with broken autofocus. However, I was near the end of the hike, and was feeling like my kit lens project had been a success, so I decided I would take a break from deep landscape shots and grab a shot of those four big white birds over there, even though I knew they were too far away to make a good photo.

It hadn’t occured to me that Great Egrets tend to be pretty solitary, so what were four of them doing together? And weren’t they a little bit too large to be Great Egrets? And where was all the cool neck flexion and posture stuff you usually see with an egret? And what was the deal with the black on the wings? That didn’t seem right. And yet, the truth of what I was seeing still didn’t dawn on me, until I had switched lenses, zoomed in on them and realized they couldn’t possibly be egrets. My next thought was White Pelicans, but that only flashed through my mind for a moment—they were not bulky enough, and didn’t have the gigantic beak apparatus that pelicans have, so that idea was obviously wrong. I also saw a quite distinctive dark facial marking. This is actually reddish, but from that distance, on a cloudy day and through my small viewfinder, it just looked an indistinct “dark” color, compared to the surrounding white. Still, though, it was a clear indicator of what I was looking at, as was the way they walked, very much like a Sandhill Crane.

You have to understand, when one doesn’t expect to ever see a Whooping Crane ever, having not just one but four of them right there in plain sight is a little difficult to accept. So as I snapped excitedly away, knowing full well that the pictures would be mediocre at best (and not caring one bit!), my mind still hadn’t quite opened up to the idea that me, a basic birding nobody, had any business seeing such rare birds. Who the hell did I think I was, anyway? However, when they began to dance…well at that point there was no denying it, and I just about started to do a little dance myself! ;)

Regrettably, by the time they started dancing, they had moved behind some reeds, so I couldn’t see that part very well. I took a few shots of it anyway, just for documentation purposes. They didn’t turn out very well. The main body of shots was quite usable, if somewhat mediocre as I expected. I was too far away, with a lens renowned for mediocrity at its mere 200mm maximum length, and with only a six megapixel camera. But given these limitations, the photos turned out ok. I may even crop one of them to use as a banner photo for this blog! I haven’t decided yet. ;)

All in all, it was an exceptionally thrilling sighting! I just hope it doesn’t turn out to be the only time in my life I ever see these birds. They really are exceptionally beautiful. Here’s one sample shot, which honestly doesn’t do them justice:

Whooping Cranes

I have actually gone a bit nuts by posting a set of sixteen shots on my Flickr stream. They are the ones that I felt were at least moderately acceptable. Normally I’d want to focus more on quality of the photo, but with birds this rare, I figure who cares. So here is the whole freakin’ set. Enjoy! :)

I’ll almost certainly be back there next weekend, to see if I can spy them again. :)

Update: I just realized that I can post a link to a full-blown slideshow of the whole set. Why bother with all the tedious clicking around when you can just view the entire set, in large size? ;)

Finally, I have to add that I went back to that same spot on October 10th and saw the same four birds again! Like the first time, it was pretty surprising, and very nice to see. This time, the weather was sunny, and the sunlight on their pure, white feathers was really amazing. The only thing, though, is that this time they were even farther away than the first time, so the photos from that afternoon were only useful for identification and documentation purposes.

[post updated October 28, 2009]

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Who needs a time machine when you have cranes?

I came across an interesting little fact this morning, while surfing the interwebs.

But first, a little context.

A couple of years ago, during an evening hike at Kettle Moraine State Forest, as the sun was getting close to the horizon and the wooded areas of the trail were starting to get distinctly dusky, I heard something really, really bizarre coming from above.  To my ears, it sounded a lot like a pterodactyl flying overhead, although it obviously could not have been one of those. The source of the racket turned out to be two fairly large birds flying overhead, calling out as they flew.

I later realized that the birds were Sandhill Cranes, which I had seen before, but I had never seen them in flight, nor had I heard their call prior to that evening. What an experience it was, too—almost as if, for a moment, I had been transported back in time to when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth. It’s really a challenge to describe how otherworldly a sound it was, although people who have heard that call themselves can probably understand.

Since then I’ve become more familiar with Sandhill Cranes, having seen them quite often at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, where they are pretty common. They are odd birds, looking distinctly more primitive than many other species, I’ve always thought (with the possible exception of storks).

Well, it turns out that perhaps they really are more primitive, in one sense. This morning I was browsing through the website of the International Crane Foundation, specifically their field guide to the various crane species of the world. On their Sandhill Crane page, they state the following:

A Miocene crane fossil, thought to be about ten million years old, was found in Nebraska and is structurally identical to the modern Sandhill crane, making it the oldest known bird species still surviving!

So Sandhill Cranes have not only been around for at least ten million years, but no other bird species is known to have been extant for that long? That is just cool. Sort of like time travel, almost. :)

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