Sunday, April 15, 2018

Post Crane Count Snow

As I detailed yesterday's Crane Count in a post, the snow fell. It continued to fall through the night. It's continued to fall as I write this post. And it's expected to continue to fall until evening.

The plows are not out.

And I have not shoveled.

I did however refill the bird feeders this morning.

This has supported the usual suspects, and for most of the day, we've had American Goldfinches, House Finches, Morning Doves, Dark Eyed Juncos, Black Capped Chickadees, and American Tree Sparrows.

It is to the best my recollection, the first time I've seen the male Goldfinches in full yellow mode during a snowstorm. During the fall and winter they are a more drab brown like the females. As spring returns so does their bright yellow plumage.


More interesting to watch has been the American Robins. They had already polished off the remaining berries in my Nannyberry Viburnums and my Highbush Cranberries during our somewhat cold March. They scouted the shrubs this morning looking for any remaining.

There were none.

And so I had a couple try something I hadn't seen before.


This Robin had been digging in the safflower feeder.


And this one appeared to be trying to eat sunflower seeds.

For as miserable as yesterday's weather was, I'm glad the Crane Count was yesterday and not today.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

2018 Crane Count Completed

I woke just before my 5:30 alarm this morning. It wasn't totally dark, but it was dark enough to warrant turning on a handful of lights, enough for me to see without waking the family. I put on a pair of flannel-lined jeans, two pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a flannel shirt on top.

It was 35 degrees F and drizzling. I slid on my new, brown Frogg Togg rain gear. I purchased a size L to make sure they'd fit over my layers. I grabbed my boots, gloves, and yellow BvB snow cap. My last step before heading out was grabbing my backpack.

The pack had a handful of useful items in it which I'd packed inside plastic grocery bags the night before (rain-proof, right?). The camera, my phone, my keys, my wallet, a Norwex cloth to wipe away rain from my glasses, and my dad's binoculars.

I pulled into the Sugar River Wetlands just before 6:00.

I lifted the wipers from windshield to be sure there was no chance of freezing. It was still raining. Despite the 35 F temperature, I wasn't cold. Layering did the trick. As my high school ecology teacher liked to say, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."

The wind was the real monster. The wind advisory for the day said sustained winds of 25-30 mph with gusts up to 45 mph. With the snow cap over my ears and my Frogg Toggs ruffling in the wind like a loose tarp or tent caught in a storm, I couldn't hear much.

It was dark. And my glasses were covered with drizzle dots. I could make out the trail, so I started by heading north from the parking lot. This is the smallest portion of the boundary for the State Natural Area.

I could make out some calls: Song Sparrow, Red Winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, American Robin.

But I couldn't actually see anything.

Something to my right. Just feet away. It sounded like an asthmatic chicken or something. It's call was clearly in distress. As I crept forward down the trail, the call changed direction moving from my right to my left. Something had taken off, flow just in front of me somewhere, and I hadn't seen it.

As for the cranes. There were no guard calls. There were no unison calls.

Overall by comparison to other trips, the marsh was quiet. No Canada Goose honks, no Mallard quacks. Mostly wind and Red Winged Blackbirds.

Once I could see the Sugar River, I turned to head back south.

It was getting lighter. I could see birds on the trail ahead of me. They come down to the trail to pick at the grit.

There are sparrows here in abundance. Sparrows can be tricky to identify. They are small brown birds which are wary enough of people to stay away. Field marks and calls are very helpful in identifying them. Darkness, rain, and quiet made this task mostly impossible. I can say with certainty that I saw Song Sparrows and Dark Eyed Juncos, but at this point in my outing they were all simply small shadowy birds staying 20 or more feet ahead of me on the trail.

Just a little ways south of where I had parked my car, I noticed two large rocks. The DNR recently did a controlled burn of the area. It's a combination of wet prairie and true mucky wet marsh land. This end is mostly prairie with plants like big blue stem as the dominant species. I stopped because I couldn't remember there being large rocks of any kind on the site.

I stood on the trail and stared. It was starting to get lighter. I could tell that the two large rocks were gray, and that they didn't really look like rocks. They began to unfurl themselves, stand erect and stare back at me. My first pair of sandhill cranes. They didn't guard call at me. They just stared almost as if bewildered. While I was thinking how lucky I was to have come across them in these miserable conditions, they must have wondered what a human was doing out in them.

I continued southward. The trail runs through a viaduct over which the highway roars, although this morning there was little traffic. Then there is a stand of oak trees.

It was quite here. The trail is little bit lower here and the stand of trees is fairly dense. There was no wind or much less. It wasn't as cold. Visibility was still poor. And there were birds everywhere.

Red Winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Northern Flickers, Dark Eyed Juncos, Ruby Crowned Kinglets, Eastern Phoebes, Downy Woodpeckers, White Breasted Nuthatches, and a Hermit Thrush.

I crossed out of the oak stand. To view the wetter marshy area on the south end of the site. Typically I can spot at least two pair of cranes here.

I looked. No cranes.

I walked further down the trail. Every few feet, the same startled call as I heard at the start of my outing. But now there was enough light for me to see. Wilson's Snipes. Literally dozens of them. A few tried to take off like they would for a display flight, up in the air they went but all were driven back to ground swiftly by the shifting winds. Most just moved 10-20 feet further into the marsh and away from the trail.

No cranes.

More "rocks". Canada Geese hunkered down, riding out the storm.

I walked back to the oak stand to get out of the wind.

A lone jogger ran by. Scared all the birds off the trail. He was the only other person I saw.

Persistence and experience told me not give up on the south end, there are always cranes, all spring and summer long. Their prints can be seen on the gritty trail.

The end of the oak stand is actually mostly Quaking Aspen and Red Osier Dogwood. The Dogwood seems to grow in clumps out in the marsh as well. A Northern Flicker was moving about in one of the Aspens, when something caught my eye between the trees and probably 70 some feet out.

Two long necks. Light gray or white. I finally dug the binocular out of the pack and grocery bag.

Between my glasses getting constantly wet and the binoculars getting wet. They were mostly useless, but the light was getting better. Two more Sandhill Cranes, These two were feeding together slowly picking through the marsh, seemingly unaware of my presence.

By this point, I'd covered the site top to bottom. My core was dry and warm. My face was wet and cold. And beyond knowing that it had become significantly more light out. I had no idea what time it was. I hadn't taken my phone or camera out for fear of them getting wet.

I started back to the car.

When the car started, the clock let me know it was 7:45 a.m. I decided to end my count 15 minutes early.

We're expecting snow tomorrow, it's already started tonight.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Crane Count 2018 - Preview

Next weekend, on Saturday morning, a host of birders across the Midwest will participate in the Annual Midwest Crane Count.

It will be dark. It will be cold. It will be early in the morning.

The count will start the same way as every year. At about 5:45, I'll roll out of bed, grab a pair of flannel lined jeans, my winter coat, hat and gloves. Grab the camera and binoculars, although they will be useless until the sun comes up.

I will drive to the marsh and listen. Initially, it will be too dark to see but the cranes near the Sugar River will call to each other, so long as I listen, I will be able to spot them. By the end of the count, 8:00 AM, the sun will be up and the air will just be starting to warm, and with any luck I'll get some pics of my crane neighbors.


Sandhill crane ambling through the marsh - 2016

Next weekend will mark my third Crane Count. In 2015, I counted by myself. I spent most weekends that spring familiarizing myself with marsh. Getting to know the inhabitants and the migrants. And it's now my spot.

In 2016, I invited my father to join me. We followed my routine from 2015. Bundled up and headed out into the dark. I could hear the cranes calling the dark, and with his poor hearing, he questioned if we'd see them. As the sun started coming up, we first saw Wilson's Snipe take to the air in flight displays. By the time we reached the south end of the state natural area, we could see a pair of cranes in the reeds. As 8:00 AM approached, we headed back to the north end of the marsh, we had another pair fly just overhead and came across the one pictured above moving through the marsh alone.

Last year, we had planned to do it again, but do it bigger. We had hoped to go out to Horicon Marsh or Necedah National Wildlife Refugee to see if we couldn't come across Whooping Cranes in our count. Instead, I sat by his side in Illinois. He'd had a stroke caused by a brain tumor and wasn't doing well. I told him that I'd continue to count each year, and one day I'd still make it out to one Wisconsin's federally protected wetlands, and that I'd take my oldest with me when she got older.

This year, I will return to the local marsh to count cranes. Like my most recent birding adventures, I'll bring his binoculars with me. And later in the month on what would have been his 70th birthday, I will head to Horicon National Marsh and spread some of his ashes there. These will be our last birding trips together, and at the same time, whenever I go out carrying his binoculars, I don't feel alone.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Migration Continues - Another Weekend of Briding

I made it out birding this weekend to continue to document Spring's migration. Duck migration is in full force. Redheads, Hooded Merganzers, Buffleheads, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, and Ringed Neck Ducks. Plover and sandpipers too perhaps: Killdeer, Wilson's Snipe, and a Least Sandpiper. And the blackbirds: Red Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Brown Headed Cowbirds.

Sparrows around have changed. I still see Dark Eyed Juncos in my lawn but not so much when I'm out int he parks. However the Song Sparrows are everywhere.

I even saw my first Eastern Bluebirds today while down by the Sugar River.

Here are some of my pictures from the Sugar River and Goose Lake from the weekend.



The Bald Eagle continues to sore above Goose Lake.


Sandhill Crenes by the river. I counted 9 total this morning.


Ringed Neck Ducks in Goose Lake


Killdeer near the Sugar River.