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Flying High

6 Nov

Last night on the way back from town, I observed and drove along with a flock of ~250-300 sandhill cranes returning to the refuge from foraging north of here. (Couldn’t do an accurate flight count and drive at the same time.)

Observing the flight dynamics of this group was really quite interesting. Unlike Canada geese that typically form several dynamic ‘V’ patterns, this flock of cranes did not. Except for the front ‘V’ with a very truncated side ‘arm’ of five individual cranes, the rest of the flock was one long linear flock stretching for a few miles.

Typically with geese the front leading bird of the ‘V’ formation frequently changes, trading places with nearby individuals. This seems logical because energy is then conserved among the leading birds. Not so with this flock. The leading crane never left its position as lead and never ‘coasted’ in flight, aka never altering or ceasing wing-flap flight. I was impressed, but also suspected it was very energy consumptive. Additionally, the five cranes forming the truncated arm behind the leader never changed positions and also never faltered in consistent wing activity.

The cranes following in line behind the leader, on the other hand, often coasted with short periods of folding wings alongside their bodies. Whether this was to rest (energy conservation) or to retain their position in the long line, I cannot be sure. I did notice that some individuals did change positions when some birds slowed or fell slightly out of line. Consequently, the line was truly maintained as one long linear fight pattern! I also wondered how many of these birds were immature cranes who aren’t yet as strong as the older adults, or if they haven’t yet mastered the ‘protocol’ of flying in large flocks. I watched one crane fly under and ahead of five other cranes in front of its former position and fill in a gap in the line. It reminded me of how blackbirds and other flock songbirds change positions while roosting on utility lines, with some hop-scotching to keep a tight and consistent line formation.

I was fascinated by the flock and flying dynamics of these several hundred sandhill cranes! Very different from the geese. Although my original intent was just to monitor where this flock landed, I was treated to an entirely different perspective of flock flying dynamics.

Because questions of daily roosting versus feeding movements and populations of sandhill cranes arose during a meeting between state and federal managers this week, I thought watching where this flock was destined might be interesting. Only a small percentage of the total flock (~24) landed on the small ‘crane ponds’ (small shallow water impoundments just north of the main refuge where cranes often roost). I expected a higher sub-set of this flock to land there. I briefly watched these birds try to locate the members of their family units for roosting overnight, then I drove ahead to monitor the remainder of the flock.

As the larger sub-set of birds approached the center of the refuge where two large impoundments are shallowly flooded for roosting and feeding, the linearity of the flock dissolved as smaller flocks formed and dispersed. Approximately 50% of the flock settled on these impoundments, and the other 50% flew east to roost on the sandbars of the Rio Grande River.

New Mexico state biologists survey populations of waterfowl on the river via aerial surveillance once a month. This refuge conducts feeding surveys every week. We are discussing now whether to incorporate ground roosting surveys for geese and cranes once or twice/month to add to the total data on use of the resources and land in the mid-Rio Grande Valley, especially since most of the cranes now present here are flying north to feed during the day at state-managed refuges (~38 and ~60 miles north of here).

Estimating the light geese roosting population would be easier than that of the cranes because the former typically take flight in one large massive flock. Cranes, on the other hand, usually depart from their overnight roosting places in small family units of 2-4. However, cranes congregate in overnight roosting  flocks at only a few locations on the refuge. Counters posted at each of these locations can easily count the family units and obtain total numbers as they take flight. It might take longer, but it might also be more enjoyable.

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Feeding sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache NWR

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A community working together for wildlife

6 Oct

We get dirty sometimes. Mosquitoes practice their vampire act on us. Often times we get wet, such as falling in marsh water with chest waders on. Sunshine beats on us and the wind might push us around. But everyone has a good time, from the refuge staff, to dedicated local volunteers, perhaps a photojournalist thrown in, to the occasional beauty pageant queen.

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge encompasses over 10,000 acres of marsh land and forest, most in various phases of restoration. It is a part of the overall Montezuma Marshes, a wooded swamp and marsh complex named in 1973 and designated as National Natural Landmark. The entire complex is around 100 acres of low land at the northern end of two of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. In addition to the federal refuge, large holdings are also managed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Audubon. Together, they form the Montezuma Complex with similar goals: to restore, conserve and protect habitat for wildlife.

The Montezuma Complex is important for conservation because the marshes, pools, and channels are stopovers for migrating birds on the Atlantic Flyway. Songbirds, shorebirds. waterfowl, swans, and raptors use the riparian areas and food sources for shelter, rest, and to fuel their migration south and north. Also of significance are the slowly increasing population of sandhill cranes. As of this summer, five or six nesting cranes were documented on the complex, most of them on the national wildlife refuge. They form a new but small component of the Atlantic Sandhill Crane Population.

The refuge was also instrumental in the successful reintroduction of bald eagles to New York State, and the first such program in the U.S. Since the program began in 1976, many of those eagles, and now their offspring, still return to the Montezuma complex to nest. Two of the nests that we monitored this summer had three nestlings fledge per nest, a sign that the species is doing well.

Another raptor species recovering from near decimation in this area is the osprey. Four of the five nests atop utility structures that line the road to the refuge entrance were full of nesting osprey and their young. These raptors are now a common sight as they elegantly dive for fish in the channels and marshes.

In addition to eagle surveys, the refuge participates in monitoring other species: ducks, geese, great blue heron, swans, grassland birds, black terns, and shorebirds. A new species added this year is the monarch butterfly: testing habitat evaluation tools and management protocols for monarch and all pollinators.

But there is more to just counting and banding ducks on the refuge.

Some of the refuge is accessible to the public to enjoy birds and native vegetation.A visitors’ center, wildlife drive, and hiking trails weave through the refuge pools, marshes, forests, and fields. Visitors can observe birds in the water and in the air. At the nearby Audubon Center, visitors can stroll through native fields in colorful bloom, or even rent a canoe or kayak to paddle on the creek and nearby canal.

But many parts are closed to the public, too. Because many waterfowl species -ducks, swans, geese, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and eagles- nest summer-long in the marsh water, fields or trees, they need undisturbed places to successfully rear their young.

dscn2386These marshes, forests and fields are also field laboratories for children and adults. Many educational events occur on the refuge and the Audubon holdings for children to experience hands-on education on ecology, biology, botany, and team building. The DEC staff conduct training sessions for young hunters. And even the staff of the refuge and DEC partake in skill building and training workshops. This past summer we participated in a three-day workshop on waterfowl habitat management and a two-day course in duck banding in cooperation with the American Bird Banding Laboratory.

Most impressive to me was the cooperative and successfully productive network with the state, private, public, and federal entities. At the core of this are the committed staff and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to the large membership and contributions of the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, many projects in the complex are supported by donations and volunteer work. The most successful is the MARSH! program.

MARSH! is part of a larger effort to restore, protect, and enhance wildlife habitat on nearly 50,000 acres in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.

We formed this VOLUNTEER program to support the habitat restoration efforts of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Montezuma Audubon Center and other partners at Montezuma. This group works on controlling invasive species in grassland, shrubland, forest, marsh and river. The work is hands-on as we cut and pull invasive species & replant with natives that will be more beneficial to wildlife & less harmful to Montezuma habitats overall!

Staff from both the national refuge and the NY DEC work with volunteers on a variety of projects:

  • surveying seedling tree survival,
  • controlling invasive species, such as swallow wart, honeysuckle, etc.
  • black tern surveys,
  • collecting wetland and upland native plant seed,
  • surveying for invasive plant density using GIS apps on phones and iPads, etc

We always finish off with lunch together, sharing stories and laughs. My last MARSH event with them culminated with a presentation I gave on the monarch life cycle and habitat. Sharing those events with them this summer was a unique and satisfying experience that will be memorable.

Especially when a local beauty pageant queen worked with us for one MARSH day.

A photographer and column writer from a local paper watched and photographed us all one day while we collected emergent marsh plant seed. He called me the next day to request an interview, which I really did not think would be published. But it did.
(Follow link below for full article)

THE BIGGER PICTURE: A visitor from the Land of Enchantment

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Link to full article.

Where the wild things are, go I

30 May

Last week was a string of days within this:

Malheur NW Refuge and Steens Mnt.

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
– Wendell Berry

The ultimate was watching a pair of swans with four cygnets. Watching for hours the intimacy of their body language with each other, their communication and connections so basic and honest simplicity, putting all of ours at shame and bumbling inadequacy. The poetics of space and place through the eyes of six swans was an experience I won’t forget. And it makes all our human drama seem so ignorant and trivial.

I belong where the wild things are.

Trumpeter swans and cygnets

White-faced ibis and cinnamon teal on marshes on the Refuge.

In between…… imagine.

24 Apr

The world is not black and white.
But
sometimes
like reading the silence
like the spaces
in between the parts
we can imagine any colors
in between
the dark
and
the light.

Where land and water meet and the desert kisses the sky.

Northern Great Basin, Round Two

5 Apr

Example of igneous rock from volcanic deposits of ash, later terraformed by rifting, faulting and moving water.

No matter where I go in this open country, the high desert of the northern Great Basin finds me smiling inside and out.

My first immersion in the high desert here in southeast Oregon was in 2010 when I spent two weeks living off the back of a 350cc motorcycle. It’s springy high suspension and knobby tires allowed me to travel in the backcountry. Most nights were spent in a small tent and warm sleeping bag, under a dark sky bejeweled with bright stars that couldn’t be found where I was living in Texas during that time in my life. From dust to snow and freezing rain to hot dry sunshine; from owls screeching overhead to a silence that roared in your head, it was all memorable.

I didn’t want to leave.

The transition from the Cascade mountains with giant scaly pine trees to the dry deserts was transforming. Standing on an outcrop, a memorable scene stretched below. Black volcanic seams and outcrops meandered through a gray-green carpet dominated with sagebrush. Ribbons of blue streams whose edges bristled with willows tickled that instinctive draw towards water. Occasional water-filled basins reflected the white clouds overhead, while dry playas were ground-clouds of dried white salt or lime.

Every time I come here I am reminded of similarities with my beloved Big Bend desert in southwest Texas. The high desert here shares geological and climatic features with the northern Chihuahuan desert, albeit colder in winter and less hot in summer. Topographical features here, typical of Basin and Range*, can be suddenly dramatic or gentle. Here are also the ‘big open skies’ that endear Big Bend to many people. Magnificent sunrises and sunsets are never boring here. And the clouds, from daily cotton balls to dramatic forms imparted by storms are continual award-winning players on the atmospheric stage.

Yet this is a kinder and gentler Big Bend; few thorny plants to grab and bite you, an astringent and intoxicating scent of sagebrush, and more recent volcanism. The most compelling feature for me is its presence of water. This is a land where land and water meet. It is a juxtaposition of water and dry climate and land. Consequently, the diversity and population numbers of wildlife outnumbers those found in Big Bend. Life here, and its interaction within the variety of ecosystems, is never boring. This overlap of water and land can’t be found in such intensity and variety in Big Bend.

Marshes fed by snow melt and crucial for migrant and summer nesting birds on the Pacific Flyway. MNWR.

Last summer was my introduction to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding area. This spring and summer will be like jumping in with both feet and getting my hands and feet dirty. Thus far, my first week has been quite rewarding. And I promise to post more about this region during months to come.

* For a primer on the geography of the northern Great Basin, see an earlier post from last summer (2014). Another post describes more local geography of the Harney Basin.

Storm over the Refuge

26 Dec

Snow geese, sandhill cranes and mallard ducks on the Refuge.

Everyone loves blue skies and sunshine. But I love storms in the desert. Their power and beauty can be exhilarating, transformative, and inspiring.

While out roving one afternoon on the Refuge, a storm rolled in (literally). A gentle warm breeze turned into a furious stampede of wind and cold. Dark clouds battled with white puffs lit from the sun, which struggled to retain its foothold on the landscape. Marshes reflected light in valleys of white water caps whipped by the wind. Ducks dotted the water like dark tiny ships rocking on the water surface. The weather and skies changed quickly after a slow start. But I didn’t care.

As I drove around the loop road a few visitors braved the driving rain to enjoy the changes unfolding around them. I stood beside one young man with his binoculars, I with the camera. Our voices almost lost in the wind, I answered questions about the sandhill cranes and snow geese, and pointed out the white leucistic crane nearly hidden by other cranes.

We both watched the undulating mass of snow geese take flight, circle and land again. They came and went several times, apparently displeased with the stormy conditions. The cranes seemed unaffected by the weather and continued their rooting in the moist soil. Nor were the hundreds of mallards and pintail ducks disturbed in the shallow water near the observation deck.

Rain showers over the marsh.

Colors of vegetation were enhanced by the moisture. The dark greys and blues of the mountains provided a dramatic background for the white geese and the golden and orange vegetation. And the rain muted shapes providing a soft texture. Everything was dramatic and muffled as if everything around me was its own little temporary dreamland.

When my fingers were too numb to negotiate the lens and shutter release, I headed back to the car. I noticed then that rain drops covered the front of my lens despite its protective hood. Smiling, I realized I was oblivious to anything other than the landscape and animals around me.

The storm proceeded east turning the sky solid gray-blue. When the sun began to light the landscape surface from between the parting clouds, the contrasted fields and trees turned a vibrant gold. The geese remained upset, moving from marsh to field and back, unsure where to find shelter. While all the birds on the west side of the Refuge began to emerge from cover; ducks bobbing on water, cranes croaking to each other, and the raptors finding leftover breezes to soar.

Reflection of emerging sunlight.

The sun and remaining moisture in the air topped off the end of the afternoon with the most brilliant rainbow I’ve seen in a very long time. It was vibrant and immense as it almost circled the Refuge. A sense of renewal ended the afternoon storm’s drama  and power.

This oasis in the desert is magical.

Rainbow over the Refuge looking east.

Rainbow to the northwest of Refuge.

Relaxing

14 Dec

Snow geese; light and dark morphs.

A quiet late afternoon on the water. Life is grand here at Bosque del Apache NWR.
An oasis in the desert.

Lesser goldfinches enjoying seeds.

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