News briefs: The conservation edition

Look here, at the end of every week, for a collection of short news items and links to stories, events, and issues regarding Wisconsin’s whooping cranes, conservation issues, get-outdoors opportunities, and, perhaps other nature-based happenings.

It’s Earth Day Everyday !

How many times did you hear that phrase on Tuesday, April 22nd? A reminder that Earth Day shouldn’t be limited to just one day a year? Perhaps that idea’s catching on; there are a number of Earth Day activities (rounded up by the Green Bay Press Gazette) continuing near me this weekend. And the International Crane Foundation is celebrating “Party for the Planet” on Saturday (an initiative of the American Zoological Association). ICF is involved in several other weekend observances of Earth Day, as you can see via that link above, to its calendar. What’s happening where you are?

Sand Mining: Wisconsin’s new conservation issue 

In Wisconsin, sand mining is a new addition to the well-known list of conservation issues (water, air, land, energy and climate issues). Wisconsinites, like people everywhere, want and need more jobs, and the state has added some by mining Wisconsin’s plentiful sand and selling it to the hydrofracking industry.

A map of Wisconsin's counties. The counties most impacted by sand mining, including Monroe, Tremplelau, Pepin, and Chippewa, are on the western edge of the state. (from Wikimedia Commons)

A map of Wisconsin’s counties; those most impacted by sand mining, including, Monroe, Trempealeau, Pepin, and Chippewa, are on the western edge of the state. (from Wikimedia Commons)

Unsurprisingly, though, new jobs that involve mining and selling the state’s natural resources, come with some built-in conflicts. This article in The Great Lakes Echo takes a good look at how sand mining is “reshaping the resident’s lives” – in ways positive and not-so – in four counties in western Wisconsin: Monroe, Trempealeau, Pepin, and Chippewa.

I called the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters for some more input on the growth of sand mining in Wisconsin, and learned this: In the last five years, “Wisconsin frac sand facilities have grown from less than a handful to more than 100.” The group’s Executive Director, Kerry Schumann, and Field Director Tom Stolp, made a fact-finding, photographing tour of some of the sand mining areas in September 2013.

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)

A stockpile of Great Northern Sand arises on a Wisconsin prairie along Highway 53. (Photo courtesy Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters)


One Man and 673 State Natural Areas

Fortunately, Wisconsin still has more State Natural Areas than most people will experience in their lifetimes. Have you visited any State Natural Areas?  Do you have a favorite?  If so, you’re sure to enjoy this link to an article at the Journal Sentinel Online about a contemporary explorer of Wisconsin, and his quest to visit each and every one of Wisconsin’s designated State Natural Areas. Does that sound difficult? It is! And even more so than you might realize, as the article explains. One DNR employee, conservation biologist Randy Hoffman, has done it as part of his job, and it’s taken him nearly 30 years to complete the assignment.

But this story belongs to Joshua Mayer, a research associate at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, who has been pursuing a personal quest, since 2009, when a few nature hikes with a new camera led to bigger thinking. “I got a few under my belt, and I thought I might make this a little project,” Mayer told J-S writer Lee Bergquist.

The view from Observatory Hill in Marquette County. Photo by Joshua Mayer who is visiting and photographing all of Wisconsin's hundreds of State Natural Areas.

The view from Observatory Hill in Marquette County. Photo by Joshua Mayer who is visiting and photographing all of Wisconsin’s hundreds of State Natural Areas.

To date he has visited 337 of the natural areas, and has posted over 10,000 photos, documenting these excursions, at Flickr! Here (above) is one of them, showcasing the view from Observatory Hill which is in John Muir Country in Marquette County

Get Outdoors and Enjoy Yourself !

Here’s one more way: Grab a pair of binoculars and head outside for some birding. Are you a rookie birder? Would you like to be one? Read this, and you can soon be on your way. Andy Paulious, a DNR wildlife biologist, offered these birdwatching tips and suggestions on Wisconsin Public Radio earlier this month.












The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the Promise of Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day I want to write a post focusing on a particular Wisconsin gem, our Natural Resources Foundation. I know many Wisconsinites who are unaware of it, so this seems a good day to try and spread the word and appreciate what it has accomplished for the state since it came to be in 1986.

First, though, I also want to share some nuggets of Earth Day news found around the internet today. Maybe some Gannett papers in Wisconsin are carrying this also, but I found it online at The Tennessean: this nice story about our own Gaylord Nelson, and the beginnings of Earth Day, featuring this stirring quote:  “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment . . . will require a long, sustained political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made . . . in the history of man.”

Happening this week in Washington: “Cowboys and Indians Ride on D.C.” – an alliance of “native peoples, farmers, and ranchers” are united in protesting the Keystone pipeline.

A Wikimedia Commons photo of a base mine and tailings pond in the Alberta tarsands region where the Keystone pipeline begins.

A Wikimedia Commons photo of a base mine and tailings pond in the Alberta tarsands region where the Keystone pipeline begins.

Finally, lest we become completely overwhelmed by environmental challenges that seem never-ending “5 environmental wins to celebrate” at the Christian Science Monitor is a good reminder that over time some of the challenges have been successfully met.

But, back to Wisconsin: compared to Earth Day, now 44 years old, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is still a youngster. It is  working to address the pressing needs that Nelson articulated. When the Natural Resources Foundation was formed in 1986, declining budgets were compromising “critical programs of the Wisconsin DNR,” and the NRF was formed to recruit members and donors, and to boost “private sector investment and involvement in state-managed natural resources.”

Since then it has developed an active membership of more than 4,000 citizens that support the mission. It has contributed $4.6 million to public and private conservation efforts, and has also created the Wisconsin Conservation Endowment which currently includes 62 funds and $3.5 million in assets that permanently support specific lands, programs, and species. Our endangered whooping cranes are one of the species to benefit.

Fish Creek, in Door County, Wisconsin (A "Badger & Whooping Crane" photo)

Fish Creek, in Door County, Wisconsin (A “Badger & Whooping Crane” photo)

Impressive as all that is, when it comes to the “relationship between man and his environment”, Wisconsin’s NRF probably does that best through it’s dozens and dozens of annual field trips. These have gotten at least 28,000 people outdoors and into Wisconsin’s very best environments – into the State Natural Areas and parks, and in touch with its lands, waters, marshes, and wildlife.

These field trips are led by DNR professionals with other experts with a love and knowledge of the places they will lead you to. Have a look at this comprehensive list of field trips that are being sponsored by NRF from now through November. But look quick, because they’re filling up fast!




News briefs: The whooping crane edition

Look here, at the end of every week, for a collection of short news items and links to stories, events, and issues regarding Wisconsin’s whooping cranes, conservation issues, get-outdoors opportunities, and other nature-based happenings.

Nests, and More Nests!         

This is going to be the big story for whooping cranes for the next month, or maybe two. It will deserve some lengthy coverage, but for now I’m just going to mention this excellent news:  whooping cranes sitting on nests have been confirmed in Wisconsin. Read all about it in this post at Operation Migration ‘s Field Journal , authored by the WI DNR pilot Beverly Paulan, who discovered 15 nests while flying a monitoring trip over parts of the state early this week. . . . And the captive flock at the International Crane Foundation is already laying eggs; you can access their annual Egg Score Card to follow the progress toward hatching . . . . And, more big news: in Louisiana a whooping crane pair in the small, newly established non-migrating flock has produced a pair of eggs! This is the first time in over 70 years that a mating pair has produced eggs in the wild in Louisiana in over 70 years. Chicks may be coming soon! But even if the eggs do not prove viable, this is very good news – as explained here, in this report at The Clarion Ledger (of Jackson, MS) news site.

Look closely!  Can you find the whooping crane "hiding" in that tall dry grass.  This is one of the International Crane Foundation's resident whooping cranes at t the whooping crane viewing station. (A "Badger & the Whooping Crane" photo)

Look closely! Can you find the whooping crane “hiding” in that tall dry grass. This is one of the International Crane Foundation’s resident whooping cranes at t the whooping crane viewing station. (A “Badger & the Whooping Crane” photo)

Oil Spill                

The International Crane Foundation has closely monitored, and posted periodic updates about the oil spill that occurred March 22nd in Galveston Bay, TX, too close for comfort to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island. In other words, it was too close for comfort to the only self-sustaining flock of wild whooping cranes in the world. (Read more about this flock in an earlier post “Where the Birds Are”.) ICF has more than a dozen links to news of the spill and its aftermath. I recommend this very informative eyewitness account, provided by KHOU news in Houston, of the cleanup of Matagorda Island. It does a good job of explaining both what’s involved in removing oil contaminated sand, and what’s at stake for wildlife. 

Outdoor Wisconsin          

Dan Small and the crew of this half hour weekly tv magazine travel Wisconsin in search of stories about our natural resources which they broadcast every Friday night on Milwaukee Public Television. Operation Migration’s training sessions with last summer’s whooper chicks was featured on the April 3rd show. If you missed it – or if you are not in the MPT viewing area – you can watch it on their website; select Outdoor Wisconsin – Program #3011. The whooping crane session begins at 9:15 of the broadcast: words and pictures telling a story that never gets old. Operation’s Migration’s work is well-explained in this short segment, and their basic task summed up this way:  “Reinforce that lesson – Follow the aircraft! Follow the aircraft!” (And it’s a pretty cute show, too; you’ll like it!)

The Great Wisconsin Birdathon         

Here’s something for virtually everyone in Wisconsin: the Great Wisconsin Birdathon, and it will be happening throughout the month of May. If you’re a cheezehead, please consider getting involved – if not as a birder, you can give a small donation in support of one. The  Birdathon began in 2012 as a joint effort of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Society for ornithology, and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. In 2013, birders and donors together raised $56,000 to support seven bird conservation projects (including the Whooping Crane Reintroduction). They are aiming this year to raise at least $75,000. You can join in as a donor, or an individual birder, or as a team. If you’re a beginner-birder, there are a number of  Birding Blitz Field Trips planned around the state just for you.





Home Again! The Rookie Whooping Cranes That Came Back to Wisconsin

Six special whooping cranes were observed last Saturday, back home in Wisconsin. They are part of the “Class of 2013” – the 8 juvenile cranes  taught the migration route last fall by Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots. This is a victory, and  a sweet one. But it comes with a side of bittersweet, too.

Every whooping crane that returns here in the spring migration is a cause for celebration, but none more so than the youngest, still-juvenile, cranes; the ones that migrated south for the first time in the fall; the ones that had to learn the migration route from a surrogate parent of one kind or another. For eight of them that surrogate was the pilots and ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration. These eight, flew north as a group, leaving their wintering site in Florida Monday morning, March 31st.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

Operation Migration, with the help of signals from radio transmitters banded to the cranes, reported on their whereabouts several times along the way; always with the speculation, but never with certainty that the group of eight was traveling together. This group of young whooping cranes, unlike some, “seemed to be a rather tight knit group, ” wrote OM’s Heather Ray at the group’s Field Journal. So when six of the eight arrived back in Wisconsin, where were the other two?

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young. (USFWS photo)

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young. (USFWS photo)

The answer of course, is the bitterwsweet part of this story. Before the six returnees were confirmed in print, OM had to break the sad news earlier this week that once they (OM) continued to receive radio signals for crane #1-13, still coming from Kentucky, they feared something bad had happened to her.

The “something bad” was most likely a collision with power lines, a theory that developed from checking Google Earth at the co-ordinates for the signal; clearly visible was “a transmission tower supporting several power lines.” The crane’s body was retrieved by volunteers for OM on Sunday. One more Class of 2013 ultralight crane–a male, #3-13–remains unaccounted for, but the OM crew is confident, for now, that he will be located alive and healthy somewhere soon.

In addition to the eight young ultralight-trained cranes in the Class of 2013, there are 4 other juveniles to watch for. These complete the 2013 cohort, and include two that were among the “costumed-reared” chicks, hatched and raised at the International Crane Foundation for Direct Autumn Release.

These cranes were released into the wild at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge to learn the migration route from experienced cranes. There were 9 of them released in October , but only 2 have survived into 2014. The smallest crane of this group, a female called Latka, has been positively identified in Wisconsin, in a photo posted to ICF’s Facebook page on March 19th. The most recent information I could find for Mork, the second surving DAR crane, is from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s February 28th Update.  Mork wintered in Tennessee, began migration in mid-February, and was reported in Jackson County, Indiana on February 19th.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane.  By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon colors left.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane. By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon-colored feathers remaining.

The final two juvenile cranes in the 2013 cohort were hatched and reared by their captive whooping crane parents at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. In late September they were brought to Wisconsin, and released at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in the vicinity of adult whooping cranes, in hopes they would bond and travel south with established whoooping crane pairs.

Indeed, they did so. Here’s where they were most recently observed:  crane #22-13 was last reported, in WCEP’s update, in Washington County, Indiana, in late February. And a March 4th photo on ICF’s Facebook page shows the other parent-reared juvenile (#24-13) with its foster crane parents in Hopkins County, Kentucky where the threesome spent the winter.

In all there were 21 whooping crane chicks hatched in 2013 and reared in one of the surrogate parent programs described here. The goal, of course, is that they all become adult whooping cranes in the wild, as part of the Eastern Migratory Population. But only 11 remain.

It goes without saying that the wilderness life these creatures are intended for is hard and fraught with  uncertainty. Death from predators, disease, and accidents is a constant companion of this program that seeks to restore a wild population of whooping cranes that nests in Wisconsin and migrates to the southern U.S. It makes those that do survive all the more treasured, and explains why each scrap of good news about this endangered species is joyously celebrated.



Annual Midwest Crane Count is Saturday

The volunteers – about 2,000 expected across the Upper Midwest – are ready. They’ve met with their county’s Crane Count coordinators to  review the basics of visually identifying cranes, and how to identify them by sound as well. They’ve received maps of their counties, and the individual sites they will monitor, and Saturday morning, from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. the 39th Annual Midwest Crane Count will once again take to the fields and wetlands of Wisconsin, and nearly 200 sites in adjacent states, to report back to us on the status of the plentiful sandhill crane species in our midst.


A gathering of sandhill cranes (image courtesy of International Crane Foundation)

No doubt, many of the reports will echo the scenario that is found in Wisconsin’s Brown County. I talked with Mark Payne, a park ranger at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, who has served as Brown County’s Midwest Crane Count Coordinator since 1997. When he was new on the job he remembers the annual count yielding about a dozen sandhill cranes, predictably, every year.

But that number began to climb, he said, often by big leaps, beginning in 2000. That year 70 sandhill cranes were counted in Brown County. In 2009 the count was up to 286 cranes, and 324 were recorded last year. Interestingly, Mark also dug out some historical data – Brown County first joined the crane count in 1981, before his time on the job. That first year only 4 sandhill cranes were counted here, said Mark.

Last week, Mark met with the group of observers that he coordinates; about 60 to 70% of the group are repeat crane counters, he estimated, so it’s an easy orientation session. They will be monitoring at 40 sites in Brown County. He said they are encouraged to get familiar with their sites beforehand, in daylight (some individuals will monitor more than one) so they know, when they arrive in the dark at 5:30 Saturday morning, where the best observation points are. “Generally they look for a hill or a high spot where they can pull off the road and get out of their car to observe.”

The Crane Count tradition began in 1976 on a small-scale when the then 5-year old International Crane Foundation decided to survey Columbia County (to the east of Baraboo where ICF is located) in search of sandhill crane activity, and to study their ecology. Two years later Crane Count covered 5 Wisconsin counties, and in 1981 it partnered with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and expanded widely through the state.

A sandhill crane pair; from the files of the International Crane Foundation.

A sandhill crane pair; from the files of the International Crane Foundation.

According the ICF, “The hopes of expanding Crane Count were to enhance wetland protection (Wisconsin currently retains about half of its historic wetlands) by promoting awareness, document areas where cranes were known to occur, and begin documenting the size of the crane population.” In 1994 it expanded into Minnesota and Michigan, and soon after into Illinois, then Iowa, officially becoming the Annual Midwest Sandhill Crane Count. In 2011 Indiana was added to the list.

Every year since 2000 at least 10,000 sandhill cranes, and often more, have been counted. “People know more about them, and seem to care more about the cranes now,” said Mark Payne. “I see more interest in helping to preserve habitat and wetlands.”




Looking for Signs of Spring? Check the Calendar!

This being April in Wisconsin, the signs of spring we’re all yearning for, are often unpredictable, at best, but one place you can always find some is on the calendar! There are a number of dates for interesting events – Earth Day and others – that happen only in April, and these are guaranteed harbingers of spring and the warmer, longer days ahead. Following is a summary of such dates I’ve been collecting.

April 12: The annual Midwest Crane Count

If you’re free from 5:30 to 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, the 12th, you can join one of the largest citizen-based wildlife surveys in the world, to monitor the abundance and distribution of cranes in the upper midwest. This spring phenomenon was initiated by the International Crane Foundation in 1976 to locate and study the sandhill cranes in one Wisconsin county only. It has grown over the years, and now includes reporting on both sandhills and whooping cranes in over 100 counties spread across six upper midwest states.

Visit the International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

Visit the International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

April 15: The opening day at the International Crane Foundation’s 2014 Visistor Season

At ICF, which will be open everyday from 9 to 5 p.m. beginning Tuesday, April 15th until October 31st, you can wander hiking trails, and get acquainted with individual birds from all 15 species of the world’s cranes. ICF is located just off U.S. Hwy. 12, between Baraboo and Wisconsin Dells. The following new guided tours will be offered this year: Flyways, Culture and Cranes, Whooping Cranes, and Conservation Leadership.


April 19:  John Muir’s Birthday celebration in Marquette County

You’re invited to celebrate the birthday of one of the greatest naturalists of all times – John Muir – in Marquette County (where Muir once lived) with The Wisconsin Friends of John Muir.  The celebration is co-sponsored by the WFJM, the Ice Age Trail, and Marquette County Health Communities.

August flowers along the Ice Age Trail in John Muir Memorial Park (photo courtesy of Kathleen McGwin, WFJM)

August flowers along the Ice Age Trail in John Muir Memorial Park (photo courtesy of Kathleen McGwin, WFJM)

The party plans include an Earth Day clean up and guided hike of John Muir Park, on Hwy. O, between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and, starting at 1:30  p.m., a family-friendly concert, featuring The Prairie Sands Band,  followed by birthday cake at Vaughhn Hall, 55 W. Montello St., in Montello. 

April 22: Earth Day conference at the Nelson Institute

Actress/activisit Rosario Dawson, British science fiction author China Mieville, leading ecologists Erle Ellis and Kevin Noone, and Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (at UW-Madison) will be among the features speakers at the 8th annual Nelson Earth Day Conference. “Earth: To Be Determined” is the theme of the day-long program which will explore challenges and opprotunities presented by rapid-scale changes in the global environment. All events are at Monona Terrace Conference and Convention Center, 1 John Nolen Drive, in Madison.

A campsite at Newport State Park, where am Earth Play Earth Day event is scheculed April 19.  (Photo by Nate Beaty)

A campsite at Newport State Park, where a Work Play Earth Day event is scheculed April 19. (Photo taken by Nate Beaty, July 23, 2013; accessed at Flickr, April 4, 2014.)

April 19, 26, and May 3: Work Play Earth Day in the Wisconsin State Park System

You can get your hands dirty planting, installing benches, pulling out invasives, staining picnic tables or raking up leaves and pine needles at one of the 20 state parks or forests particiapting in these “Work Play Earth Day” events planned by the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks.

(Here is a link to Flickr, for the photo above, taken by Nate Beaty.) 

Earth Day Where YOU Are

And finally, wherever YOU happen to be there’s sure to be something planned for Earth Day 2014. Where I am, for example, the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary has programming planned all weekend, April 25th, 26th and 27th. In addition to an Electronics Recycling Drive (the 25th and 26th) and a Spring Bird Hike early Saturday morning, the Sanctuary will use the occasion to educate the public about its animal resources, including its porcupines, otters, and wolf pack.

Wherever you are in the world, there is probably something similar happening  in April – a chance to do something nice for our Mother Earth, and to get outside and enjoy the gifts of the natural world.