As I sit in my ‘home on wheels’ drinking my early morning coffee on Turkey Day catching up on correspondence (and rare Internet connection), I hear the air boat out on the large marshes across the road and RV ‘Village’ on the Refuge. One of the biologists is out this morning picking up dead snow geese. They are carriers of and susceptible to avian cholera. With the prolonged unseasonal cold weather we’ve had here, we’re seeing early mortality of snow geese. I also wonder how much stress levels from extremely high human visitation with the recent Crane Festival adds to increases in mortality rate, possibly compounding overall stress from cold temps, high animal density, lower water volume, and less corn/feed access than in previous years. One of the biologists mentioned last week that recent mortality incidents are earlier than normal.
During the Festival I was fortunate to accompany as an aide a six-hour Sandhill Crane Behavior class. The instructor was crane biologist Paul Tebbel and his associate. Our group of 15 Festival participants was out by one of the ‘Crane Ponds’ in the dark at 5:45am to watch the ‘fly out’. The ‘fly outs’ and ‘fly ins’ are the daily celebratory attractions for people from all over the country as tens of thousands of snow geese and nearly 10,000 sandhill cranes take to the sky in the morning and land in the evening. We chose one of the smaller marshes for a closer and more personal view of the cranes. It was indeed magical and awe inspiring despite temperatures in the mid-20’s. Even the cranes were reluctant to take flight until the sun warmed them a bit. We could see ‘bracelets’ of ice on their legs when they moved around in the marsh.
Paul has been involved in sandhill crane biology and conservation for decades. Formerly the director and manager for the 1400-acre wildlife sanctuary on the Platte River in Nebraska (the bottleneck for sandhill crane migrations), he is now head of the Effie Yeaw Nature Center north of Sacramento. His expertise is crane behavior and he has conducted workshops here at Bosque del Apache Refuge for 20 years!
He is one of the best naturalist instructors I have had the fortune to meet and work with! His casual approach to imparting information on biology and animal behavior elicited a genuine and more personal interest from all participants. I especially enjoyed how he and his associate demonstrated the crane’s pre-flight signals between members of crane family units (forward leaning and looking back to see if other family members and uits were attentive). The two presenters mimicked the crane behaviors accompanied by a human speech interpretation: “Look, Junior, I’m leaning forward now! It’s time to fly! Are you paying attention? Is Mom there, too?”
I learned more about cranes in those six hours than I could ever accumulate from reading literature! And I now have a greater personal and scientific understanding of cranes, as well as an increased overall appreciation of how special they are. Not just because they are ‘big and pretty’ (the most common response to Paul’s question to participants why people are interested in cranes), but also because they have extraordinarily complex social behaviors. And bird/animal behavior is my primary interest (second to biology).
The Festival overall was a huge success for all involved: participants, the Refuge, the Friends of BdA, and the volunteers. It was crazy busy for us all, but well organized. Every single Refuge staff member worked long hours and every day along with the rest of us, and it was truly a great ‘team player’ experience. Even the Refuge Manager was on board daily with smiles and encouragement. All the vendors and auxiliary representatives from public (federal and state) agencies and other non-profit organizations (e.g. wildlife conservation and rehabilitation groups) were tremendously friendly and interactive with both Festival staff and visitor participants.
Now that the Festival is over, all of us get a chance to relax and enjoy more personal time. I volunteered to help conduct raptor surveys every Saturday, which I enjoy immensely. Especially when pointing out one of the bald eagles to visitors that may be around me when surveying the two main marshlands. Folks are thrilled to see them.
I have to admit that I have grown very fond of our smallest falcons, the American kestrels. I was giddy with excitement when close to a rehabilitated female kestrel and a male Great Horned owl (both serve as foster parents!). Additionally, I now have the opportunity to see many of the male duck species that nest at Malheur NWR in all their winter plumage! One of my favorites is the male bufleheads; they look like large floating black and white Nike sneakers. The only waterfowl missing here from my ‘Favorite List’ is my old friends, the loons. They are a very rare occurrence here.
Since serving the wildlife refuges is my new retirement ‘career’, my intentions are to improve and expand my professional capacities that will enhance my skills and performance as a naturalist and a biologist. This was my goal upon retiring: to devote myself to the conservation of wildlife and contribute to enhancing the connection between wildlife and people. And I admit that doing so is enormously satisfying and often full of adventures.
Our volunteer group here is planning a large turkey dinner potluck this afternoon, including those of the Refuge staff that live on site. Now that we all have more free time I plan to finally take my camera out and hike in the mornings! Although I think I might invest in a pair of insulated coveralls 😉
Happy Holidays to all of you!