The Citizen Scientist and The Cow Pond Whoopers

The Cow Pond whoopers are gone now from Florida. Gone, but not forgotten. There are dozens and dozens of new cow pond craniacs – many in the immediate area of the cow pond, southeast of Tallahassee, and others around the country and in Canada – who are hungry for news of this whooping crane pair as they make their migration north to the breeding territory in Wisconsin.

If there is news about them from somewhere along the migration route you can be sure that Karen Willes will have it, and will share it through social media for all the others. Karen, a retired choral music educator and music minister emeritus for East HIll Baptist Church in Tallahassee, is also a photographer who has spent many hours capturing dramatic images of the Cow Pond Whoopers.

Gradually, though, her photographic interest in the whooping crane pair has expanded to other efforts on their behalf – in particular the effort to document their days and nights at the cow pond, and to spread awareness of the endangered whooping crane species. Along the way Karen Willes has become a citizen scientist, and evidence that her efforts are succeeding can be found in all the new craniacs waiting for news of this pair.

[All the images accompanying this post are the photos of Karen Willes]

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

If the news doesn’t come from someone reporting sightings of them along the migration route, the Cow Pond Whoopers should be building a nest back in Wisconsin soon enough, and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership will report it, and Karen will pass that on to anyone who might have missed the report. And if a chick should result from that nest, and if the whooper parents raise that chick to fledge, and it accompanies them on their journey back to the cow pond, that would be like the Trifecta or the Triple Crown or the Grand Prix, for the cow pond craniacs.

But with or without a wild chick of their own, this pair of whoopers is almost certain to return to its wintering grounds on the humble “cow pond” just east of Tallahassee, when the fall migration season comes round again. And when that happens, news of their arrival will spread fast and they will be joyfully welcomed, as the rare, royal visitors they are.

Who Are these Cow Pond Whoopers?

On January 13, 2010 the 82nd day of their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida, 10 young whooping cranes touched down at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge just south of Tallahassee. The young cranes, including #15, a female, and #11, her future mate, were part of the Class of 2009, which had been trained in Wisconsin by Operation Migration pilots to follow their ultralight aircraft. Since the previous October they had been following them all the way to Florida, thereby learning a migration route they would use ever-after as free, wild whooping cranes.

In the enthusiastic crowd of 1500 who came out to watch a flyover of the cranes and ultralights, was Karen Willes with her camera, photographing the scene. Little did she imagine then that two of the birds in the group she was watching would come to so preoccupy her winter months.

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Flyover of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Up there, among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. (Photo by Karen Willes)

After two months of lightly-monitored freedom at St. Marks NWR for this Class of 2009, a group of eight of them banded together and began their first, unaided migration back north. They left at midday March 24th, and were recorded back at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on April 1, 2010. Both cranes 11-09 and 15-09 were part of that group. They returned to St. Marks in late 2010 and came back to Wisconsin in Spring 2011 in similar groups.

But after the fall migration back to Florida in 2011, and during the early months of 2012, the duo of #11 and #15 seemed to transition from two individual birds in a large group, into an established pair with an established territory in Florida that centered on the Tallahassee-area pond. Confirmation of their pair bond came after they returned to Wisconsin in March 2012 and were discovered building a nest together.

They were observed incubating an egg on April 27th, but by May 6th the egg had disappeared. This was not unexpected for “such young and inexperienced parents,” according to The Journey North’s biographical notes on these cranes.

Their Winter Territory

Back in Florida again, the pair spent their winter nights – most of them anyway – roosting in that shallow pond in the middle of a pasture. This is on the very edge of suburban Tallahassee, and the cranes share the field and pond with about 100 cows.

A gathering of humans with cameras and binoculars is often on the edge of the field; “usually 12 to 15 people when the weather is good,” according to Karen Willes. Many of them live in the area, but there are numerous visitors from other states and Canada as well, she said.

Is this an unusual location for cranes to adopt as their winter home? I asked Karen that question, and she gave me a map to really “see ” the area. “It’s a VERY unusual location,” she affirmed. “Move the map around to see how close it is to the middle of town. Also look to the right of the pond to see how much open land there is . . .There’s LOTS of room for them to forage then return to the pond to roost.”

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

This is the kind of situation that gives nightmares to the professionals in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). “It’s an understatement to say that we have been alarmed and amazed at their choice of wintering ground,” wrote Brooke Pennypacker, in a Field Journal entry a year ago. An OM pilot, Brooke is someone who knows these cranes better than anyone. He knows full well the dangers they face in the wild, and the danger, posed by living too close to the human world.

A Job for A Citizen Scientist

This was also a situation that would require, ideally, very close monitoring, which would be impractical, if not downright impossible, for the partners of WCEP to provide. And this is where the citizen scientist inside Karen Willes began to emerge.

Karen was already familiar with the work of Operation Migration. She followed their work in the news when they first brought crane chicks to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife refuge at Crystal River. Once OM began to bring some of the cranes to St. Marks, not that far from Tallahassee, in 2008, Karen was there for the flyovers.

“Except for 2013, I’ve attended every flyover,” she wrote in an email. “It’s an event that brings out many people, on early mornings, often quite cold, for a chance to see the young cranes as they follow the ultralight aircraft to their winter home at St. Marks.”

When she learned that two cranes of 2009 were roosting at the cow pond, Karen, who lived nearby, began to photograph them often during the winter of 2011-2012. Karen told me that she’d been “interested in photography for many years but the addition of a long lens has made wildlife photography and bird photography, in particular, much more accessible and successful.”

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Last year, she said, she added digiscoping to her photography skills; that’s using a spotting scope and photographing through it. Now she also has an adapter that allows her to attach her iPhone to the scope, and show live and closeup images of what the cranes are doing. “That, in particular, was a way to share the whooping cranes with people,” she said.

Wearing Many Hats for Whooping Cranes

It wasn’t long, though, before Karen also found herself drawn increasingly into new roles on behalf of whooping cranes – as an educator of the human visitors, and protector of the cranes. As more and more people found out about the Cow Pond Whoopers, Karen carved out a larger presence for herself at the cow pond.  “I never tire of watching them, and sharing information about them with visitors,” she said.

Karen answers many questions for visitors, and she also provides them with information-to-go: printed cards with contact information for Operation Migration and other agencies, but also with information that is specific to the Cow Pond Whoopers, including websites where interested people can pull up the life histories of these birds. Although she has had input from others, Karen has basically designed and paid for these materials, and others, herself.

To protect the birds from too much human activity Karen has done several things. “I arrive early and stay late so that people who might want to get closer to them ‘to get a better picture’ would have no reason to because it is too dark for their photographic equipment.” She has also designed signs with information about the endangered species that these birds are part of, and the reasons it is necessary for asking people to keep their distance from them. With permission from the property owner, the signs are posted at intervals along the property line.

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

“We have asked people to stay behind the signs and not approach the fence in order to keep distance from the birds,” she said. Karen explained to me that the distance from the birds is, at most 200 yards, (a bit less from certain perspectives) which is the Officially Approved Distance that people who encounter a whooping crane in the wild are asked to observe. It seems amazing, but Karen said that in four years of closely watching the Cow Pond Whoopers, “they have never acknowledged people, nor reacted to anything we do.”

Documenting the Cow Pond Whoopers

For the last two winter seasons Karen has taken on yet another citizen science task: documenting the details of the Cow Pond whoopers daily comings and goings. “I went to the pond twice a day as often as I could and noted the time they left in the morning and the time they returned in the evening. My notes read like an airline schedule — 6:57 a.m. departure / 5:33 p.m. arrival — along with any unusual happenings or other wildlife in the area. I documented them all winter, November 30, 2013 through their last day — March 7, 2014.”

When she couldn’t be at the pond, Karen had a crew of helpers, including members of the Apalachee Audubon Society to take turns on “Whooper Watch.” Two years of data for this whooper pair have now been sent to both Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation. This year the cranes arrived late, January 3, 2015, but again, left on March 7th. Karen continued to visit the cow pond in the evening for a few days into the next week, on the chance they might show up again, and to share what she knows with the others that inevitably came, still hoping to see the cranes.

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willis)

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willes)

As visitors came to realize that the cranes really had left on migration, Karen said they began to reflect on the unique opportunities they had been witnessing. Some had known about the cranes but had not really paid attention to them — until this year. They thanked her for her commitment to the birds and for the information she provided as they “learned something” they didn’t know before. That was exactly what she wanted to hear! “I hope others will catch on to the need to document the birds in their areas,” said Karen, “so we can have lots of citizen scientists out there to educate visitors and protect these birds.”

This, That, and a Few More Things: Conservation Stories

This:  Groundwater Issues and Frac Sand Mining in Wisconsin  The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, fresh from the ups and downs of the fall election season, is sounding feisty. “The environment played its largest role yet in Wisconsin politics,” the WLCV states in its Winter newsletter. No surprise that The Badger and the Whooping Crane believes that’s a good thing for Wisconsin’s natural resources and all its creatures, critters, and living things.

Both the WLCV, and the national LCV it is a part of, targeted our re-elected Governor Scott Walker for the many “conservation fails” they’ve attributed to him. (See here:  The Dirty Truth About Our Clean Jobs,” and “Walker Blew It On Wind” and “Trashing Recycling” and “Mining for Money,” and . . . have a look, there’s more).

Even though that governor is back in the statehouse and an extremely friendly-to-Walker group of new and returning lawmakers will reconvene at the State Capitol early in January, Wisconsin’s own League of Conservation Voters remains undeterred in its non-partisan mission. In the short-term that seems to be taking shape this way: “for a proactive push to safeguard our precious groundwater resources,” and also to prod the state to rigorously monitor the frac sand mining industry (this is from the newsletter).

Ann Sayers, WLCV’s program director, told the Cap Times, in an article published December 8th, that parts of Wisconsin are nearing “a groundwater crisis.” She explained:  to accommodate a host of different users all looking to the same water sources – cranberry growers, farmers, businesses, and municipalities – there must be “protections in place . . . to properly allocate the supply in years to come.”

In last year’s state legislative session WLCV worked hard to bring about the defeat of what they labeled “The Bad Groundwater Bill” which would have curbed the Department of Natural Resources’ authority to regulate high-capacity wells; this would have allowed frac sand mining companies, factory farms, and other large water users to pull from the same water source.

Worth protecting:  Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says "Public opinion on the environment hasn't changed."

Something to protect: Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says “Public opinion on the environment hasn’t changed.”

“We don’t really have time for politics where this issue is concerned,” Sayers told the Cap Times. She also said the last legislative session “was probably the most partisan environment,” that she has ever worked in, but expressed optimism for the 2015-16 for “a new spirit of cooperation” among a bi-partisan group of pro-conservation legislators elected to the State Assembly in November.

Because Wisconsinites value the state’s resources so deeply, conservation issues are on the minds of the state’s voters, Sayers affirmed.              [The above information was Updated, December 15, 2014.]

While we hope for “This” to be true, there’s also –

That:  Legislation to Restrict Local Authority Over Sand Mines

No sooner had I begun to write about the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, when a new email from Ann Sayers made noise in my In Box. It was alerting all WLCV members that the new Wisconsin legislature may soon reconsider legislation that would change “local authority over frac sand mines.” Last year the WLCV helped defeat “two bills that would have kneecapped local control and prevented you from having a say over what happened in your own back yard. These bills moved fast,” wrote Ann, “but we moved faster.”

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)

The WLCV must be getting a little weary, but apparently there will be no rest. If you live in Wisconsin and think bills restricting local control sound like a bad idea you might consider joining WLCV. They are fighters and defenders; more members always mean more strength.

And then there’s . . .

That, Too:  Enviro Groups Sue Wisconsin for Poor Air Quality Standards

The Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Inc., and Clean Wisconsin have joined in a lawsuit accusing the state’s Department of Natural Resources of failing to enact higher air quality standards that should have been in place since 2010. These are standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxide in 2010, and for fine particulate matter in 2012. The law suit was filed this week in Dane County Circuit Court.

So that’s that. But when it comes to the environment and conservation stories, there will always be . . .

A Few More Things To Share

As I write this, it is nearly the eve of the 115th Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society. The new CBC will take place December 14, 2014 through January 5, 2015.

Described so well as “the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world,” the Christmas Bird Count involves “tens of thousands of participants,” and it will provide critical data on bird population trends. The data from over 2,300 “circles” will be entered after the count and will become available to query under the Audubon website’s Data and Research link.


A blue-winged teal (Photo at Wikimedia Commons, by Alan D. Wilson.)

Each count takes place within an established 15 miles in diameter circle, organized by a count compiler. Anyone – beginner to veteran – is welcome to participate, but there is a specific methodology to the CBC and participants must make advance arrangements with the count compiler to join a local circle. (If YOU are interested, this link to Audubon will help you find a local circle.)

If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group with at least one experienced birdwatcher. Want to count from home? If your home is within the boundaries of a circle, you can stay right there and count the birds that come to your own feeder – as long as you’ve made prior arrangements with your circle’s count compiler.


This would be the time to mention that a recent contest to name America’s Best Birdwatching Destination has been won by Ohio’s Magee Marsh. Although this is not one of the contending spots that are closest to the hearts of the whooping crane’s many fans, it does represent an important win for wetlands – so on that score alone, Ohio’s win is also one for each and every conservationist. The Toledo Blade’s outdoor writer Tom Henry explains here why wetlands and preservation of the natural Great Lakes shoreline are of such importance to all of us.

Wetlands and Great Lakes shoreline were winners, too.

Wetlands and Great Lakes shoreline were winners, too.

By the way, this contest to name America’s Best Birdwatching Destination was co-sponsored by USA Today and – a travel website. Those sites that ended up in the Ten Best that are closest to the hearts of craniacs everywhere? Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the gulf coast of Texas, and the Platte River Valley in Nebraska.


Plastic Bag Bans and restrictions have been spreading across the U.S. by the way of various cities and local government units from Manhattan Beach, CA, to Nantucket Island, MA. But on Sept. 30, 2014, California became the first state to pass a statewide ban on single use plastic bags (although local legislation banning them in Hawaii does add up to a de-facto statewide ban, according to EcoWatch.)

The new California law will take effect in July 2015. Here is a wide-ranging history of the spread plastic bag restrictions from EcoWatch, and it includes an interesting “Short History of the Plastic Bag” in timeline form.

And finally, from The Cornucopia Institute (which promotes economic justice for family scale farming) here is a list of 10 Environmental Non-profit Organizations That Are Changing the World. Is there anyone, anywhere, that doesn’t yearn for ways to change the world? Here are 10 groups to help us all do that!

What Wisconsin Does for Birds

Having written last week about the new State of the Birds 2014 report (produced by such bird scientists as the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and many similar experts) The Badger & the Whooping Crane would be remiss not to give a few paragraphs of space to Wisconsin and the supportive actions we do here, individually and collectively, on behalf of birds.

At the top Wisconsin is the kind of place where an organization like the International Crane Foundation could put down roots and thrive.  We are a state where the DNR is an active partner in acclaimed efforts to restore the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, and of course, the endangered whooping crane.

At the citizen level we are a state of “birders.” Earlier this year we discovered, through a survey conducted by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that we rank in 2nd place in the nation for the percentage of active birders in our population. In addition to our birding citizens – or maybe, in part because of them – we are enthusiastic leaders of such bird-centered undertakings as the Annual Midwest Crane Count, Bird City Wisconsin, and the Great Wisconsin Birdathon; and there are many more.

Birders setting up to view a rare Kirtland warbler on a Natural Resources Field Trip, Spring 2014.

Birders setting up to view a rare Kirtland warbler on a Natural Resources Field Trip, Spring 2014.

Let’s take a closer look at just a little of the evidence. The Great Wisconsin Birdathon, launched in 2012, is one of the state’s newest “for the birds” projects, and it combines zealous birders with supportive donors who pledge a dollar amount for each of the bird species the birder can locate in one 24-hour period, at any time in the month of May.  In this way over 200 birders raised $56,000 for important bird projects in 2014.

About $112,000 has been raised by The Great Wisconsin Birdathon since it began. Birders of all ages participate in a myriad of ways – birding as teams, and by joining organized Birding Blitz hikes, and by birding as individuals.  Participation can be as simple as birding out one’s own kitchen window.

The projects that are supported by the funds raised are: the  2nd Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, Bird City Wisconsin, Wisconsin Bird Monitoring, Kirtland’s Warbler Monitoring and Management, Southern Forest Initiative, Wisconsin Stopover Initiative, Reforesting the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and the Whooping Crane.  The Great Wisconsin Birdathon is a joint project between the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

In closing, I’d like to direct your attention to 10 Ways You Can Help Birds from the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.  It’s a great reminder of what you may already know – that coming to the aid of birds can be as simple as “Offering birds food, water and shelter in your own yard,”

News briefs: Getting outdoors in Wisconsin

More than half-way to its fundraising goal of $75,000, the Great Wisconsin Birdathon 2014 has thus far earned $38,296 for bird conservation in the state. The Birdathon is a month-long event during which birders collect donations for each bird they will identify in one 24-hour period at some point during May. Among the 8 different bird conservation projects supported, are the Whooping Crane Reintroduction Program, and the Monitoring and Management of the Kirtland’s Warbler.

Birding on Lake Michigan (Photo at Flickr by Peter Gorman)

Birding on Lake Michigan (Photo by Peter Gorman, at Flickr)

Take a Birding Blitz field trip

There are at least 3 or 4 different ways to participate in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. One that’s particularly tailored to those who are new to birding are the Birding Blitz field trips sponsored by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. Expert birders will be your guide through an educational morning at various birding hotspots around the state. Four Birding Blitzes still have openings, including: the Southern Kettle Moraine (Friday, May 23rd), the Buena Vista Grassland (Saturday, May 24th), Birding Hot Spots of Green Bay Bird City (Saturday, May 24th), and Birding Blitz Door County (Saturday, May 31st). A fifth Birding Blitz at Wyalusing Haunts (Friday, May 23rd) is listed as “Full,” but if that’s the one that would work for you, it never hurts to call the Natural Resources Foundation (866-264-4096) to see if there have been cancellations.

Blue mound (Flickr Photo by Jonathan Bloy)

Blue mound (Photo by Jonathan Bloy, at Flickr)

The ever-so-popular field trips of Wisconsin’s NRF

Speaking of the field  trips sponsored by Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin – both the quality and the popularity of these programs mean they fill up fast. Right now nearly 80 trips listed for June through November are listed as “full,” while only 40, or so, still have openings. In The Green Travel Guide to Southern Wisconsin, authors Pat Dillon and Lynne Diebel say “NRF trips offer expert guides, one-of a kind experiences, and remarkable low prices, making these trips among the best outdoor activities in the state. We love these outdoor adventures.”

Here are two examples from the NRF field trips scheduled for June (12 June trips still have openings):

Bluebird Trail Hike:  Come hike along an established bluebird nest-box trail, Friday morning, June 6th, at Muscoda in Iowa County;

Drawing Delights from Willow River: As noted on the schedule, this one is offered especially for artists and sketchers (novices welcome). This unique exploration combines hiking, drawing, and ecology: see and sketch waterfalls, forested slopes, spring flowers and ferns; a botanical illustrator will offer instruction for sketching with pencil, pen, or watercolor.

Flickr photo "Willow River Falls," by zman z28.

Willow River Falls (Photo by zman z28, at Flickr)


Get outdoors with The Nature Conservancy

There are many wonderful ways to “Get Outdoors” in Wisconsin, and here’s one more to consider this week. The Nature Conservancy, which has a presence in all 50 states and 35 other countries around the world, works in Wisconsin by protecting public lands and migratory songbird habitat, and by expanding protected areas, and through working with agriculture to improve water quality. Look at this page with both a map and a list of nature conservancy preserves in the Dairy State. Find a new place you would like to explore, then check out these Guidelines for Visiting a Conservancy preserve.

Peter Matthiessen, novelist and wilderness writer, lifted the cause for cranes

Novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen, who passed away April 5th, is credited by the International Crane Foundation’s Jim Harris with bringing “our organization and the crane cause to a new level.” After joining ICF in 1992 for a crane workshop held on a river boat on the Amur River, which forms the border between Russia and China, Matthiessen began a personal odyssey to follow all 15 species of cranes on their transcontinental migration journeys. In time a wonderful book, The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes,(2001), and a national speaking tour in concert with ICF, resulted, and raised the visibility of the crane cause to new heights. Jim Harris calls this book “a significant contribution to crane literature and thought,” praising the author’s “evocation of the spirit of cranes.”

To Peter Matthiessen the cranes were “the greatest of the flying birds” and “the most stirring.” He wrote that their “clarion calls out of the farthest skies, summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth.”


News briefs: All about May, and more

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.

Eastern Migratory Population Update

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has issued the newest population update for the EMP, a period covering March 1 to April 30, 2014. It finds, “93 birds in Wisconsin, 4 not recently reported, 1 suspected mortality, and 3 long-term missing” for a possible maximum of 101 cranes.

The Badger & the Whooping Crane had focused earlier this spring on the return of the youngest cranes to Wisconsin, the ones making their first, unaided migration north, and is happy to report now that three more have been accounted for since that earlier report. The International Crane Foundation posted on its Facebook page that DAR chick, Mork, has been reported in Green Lake County, and the newest WCEP Update reports the two parent-reared chicks, # 22-13 and #24-13 back in the state.

May is American Wetlands Month

See the website of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association to learn why wetlands matter. Or visit their Facebook page to see the many reasons to explore a wetland: “Reason #1: Wetlands are watershed workhorses.” And if you happen to have any great wetland photos you’d be willing to share, email them at

May is “Magnificent whooping Crane Month” at the Patuxent Research Refuge

A series of free public programs at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland are planned as a celebration in May of Magnificent Whooping Crane Month. Migration stories will be shared by Brooke Pennypacker one of Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots, as the headline attraction for Saturday, May 17th. All the events (check them out at the Magnificent Whooping Crane Month link!) will be held at the National Wildlife Visitor Center, part of the Patuxent Refuge complex.


The 2014 Door County Festival of Nature, May 22 – 24

The Ridges Sanctuary is hosting the 12th annual Door County Festival of Nature. The celebration for 2014 will take place May 22, 23, and 24, and includes such diverse opportunities as a full-day birding outing on Washington Island, a chance to study lake ecology aboard a Great Lakes research vessel, a tour of the uninhabited, and usually-inaccessible Plum Island, and a tour of the certified-organic Waseda Farms.

The International Crane Foundation Celebrates Three New Honors

The Jerome J. Pratt Whooping Crane award has been presented to ICF Founder George Archibald by the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. ICF’s Dr.K.S. Gopi Sunder was one of five conservation biologists in India to receive the Carl Zeiss Conservation Award, and the International Institute of Wisconsin is presenting its Corporate Citizen Award to ICF on Saturday, May 3rd.

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.”




Meet the 21 Newest Wisconsin Master Naturalists

You may meet some of them – the newly certified WIMNs – in Door County during the next year in the state parks, or assisting at the county’s other nature-oriented program centers and resources – mapping invasive species at The Clearing, maybe, or conducting oral history interviews for the Land Trust. Or maybe you ‘ll admire the efforts of these special volunteers in the improved bird display at Peninsula State Park nature center, or appreciate the geocaching linked to the new kiosks belonging to Door County Coastal Byways.

Jan Mills, a student in the Master Naturalist class, leads the other students along a trail at Shivering Sands, a Nature Conservancy area near Sturgeon Bay.

Jan Mills, a student in the Master Naturalist class, leads the other students along a trail at Shivering Sands, a Nature Conservancy area near Sturgeon Bay.

Wisconsin’s newest 21 Master Naturalists jumped into 2014 by making a real investment of their own dollars and considerable time in the stewardship of our natural resources.  They devoted 7 Fridays in January and February to the Wisconsin Master Naturalist course  – taking classes, doing homework, and heading out on a variety of field trips during one of the snowiest, coldest winters ever.

All the photos in this post are used courtesy of Master Naturalist course instructors Kathleen Harris and Karen Newbern.

These students earned the special certification they came for, but to keep it, they’ll spend the rest of 2014 accumulating 40 hours of volunteer service. Every year after – in order to remain a certified Master Naturalist – they’ll devote another 40 hours to service, and also add 8 additional hours of advanced training in protecting and teaching about the natural world.

The Wisconsin Master Naturalist program is a great example of ‘citizen science’ at work. Similar to the Wisconsin Master Gardner course, and to master naturalist courses in other states, WIMN is administered under the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Environmental Resources Center. The just-completed Door County class was a joint project of WIMN and The Clearing in Ellison Bay.

The Master Naturalist class in Door County, Winter 2014, pause during a field trip for a group photo.

The Master Naturalist class in Door County, Winter 2014, pause during a field trip for a group photo.

Here’s a brief snapshot – in statistics – of the class members:   as you might suspect some – 11 of them – are retired;  9 others are employed part-time or seasonally or at home, and 1 is full-time employed. All have had some college education; over half have graduate degrees. Five of them are in their 30’s, 4 in the 50’s, and 11 are over 60.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal shares “A Day in the Life of a Conservation Warden” talk. He also covered confiscation of items related to rare and endangered species.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal shares “A Day in the Life of a Conservation Warden” talk. He also covered confiscation of items related to rare and endangered species.

“Be prepared to share and build on what you already know.” Those words were at the top of the syllabus the MN students used throughout the course, and I asked one of the course instructors, Kathleen Harris, for examples of what kind of experience her students brought with them. “The knowledge base was impressive,” she told me. “Class members included a professional horticulturist, DNR Customer Service supervisor, a Chinese herbalist (medicinal), raptor rehabilitator, organic gardener, pediatric gastroenterologist, reading and science specialist, school principal . .”

As part of the "lead a hike" learning exercise Vinni Chomeau shows the group a vole hole, and ice crystals in the tunnel.

As part of the “lead a hike” learning exercise Vinni Chomeau shows the group a vole hole, and ice crystals in the tunnel.

Class members also reported in a pre-class survey some of their own life experiences that inspired them to seek the MN certification. These included hiking, hunting, camping, and sailing all over Wisconsin; backpacking in the Kettle Moraine, doing prairie restoration with Wild Ones, helping with the Ice Age Trail, reading widely about  Wisconsin, and visiting the International Crane Foundation.

Kathleen Harris, who has been the naturalist at Peninsula State Park since 1998, lead the class along with Karen Newbern, another Door County naturalist. In addition to Kathleen and Karen, the class learned about wildlife, land and water issues, and plant identification from more than a dozen other experts.

Class member Cricket Lea “searches” for “food” as a “blind bear” in a classic Project WILD activity that helps students learn about carrying capacity - the largest number of a species that can exist long-term in a particular environment.

Class member Cricket Lea “searches” for “food” as a “blind bear” in a classic Project WILD activity that helps students learn about carrying capacity – the largest number of a species that can exist long-term in a particular environment.

Other experts included professionals from the WI Department of Natural Resources, from The Clearing and The Ridges, and the Door County Land Trust. They also learned from volunteer naturalists, a poet, and a photographer, and studied the very particular geology of Door County – the rocky Niagara Escarpment – with geologists Nick Peltier and Roger Kuhns.

Class members in a group activity demonstrate a particular species which the rest of the class must guess, based on only 5 clues provided by this group.

Class members in a group activity demonstrate a particular species which the rest of the class must guess, based on only 5 clues provided by this group.

The WIMN program began in the spring of 2013. The Badger and the Whooping Crane posted about it in November,  noting there were then 72 certified WI Master Naturalists across the state. Now there are 93. The program will grow fast in 2014. Courses are underway right now at Hartman Creek State Park near Waupaca, and Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee County, and four more are already scheduled at various other locations around the state.

“Discovering Wetlands” Conference in Lacrosse

Discovering Wetlands is the theme of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association 2014 conference underway in  La Crosse this week. Wetlands experts and enthusiasts from across the region are gathering for this annual event which includes presentations, working groups, field trips, and a banquet.  The WWA says that a growing regional collaboration for protecting and conserving Wisconsin’s wetlands has resulted from nearly two decades of the annual conferences.

John O. Anfinson of the National Park Service is giving the keynote address, “Trapped by HIstory:  The Past and Future of the Upper Mississippi River.  The presentations include Wetlands Restoration, Wetland Wildlife, a Mining Discussion, Native Wetland Flora, Wetland Mitigation, and Invasive Species.

In the Kettle Moraine, Northern Unit.

In the Kettle Moraine, Northern Unit.

The Wisconsin Wetlands Association was established in 1969 to preserve and restore wetlands – essential as pollution filters, and for flood control, and biodiversity.  The are “ecological wonderlands,” says the WWA web page devoted to answering the question “Why Save Wetlands?”

The association’s 1450 members include scientists, educators, conservationists, hunters, and concerned citizens. Among the many, many projects and activities this organization is involved with, you might check out Wisconsin’s Wetland Gems – a list of 100 special locations.  They are listed and mapped on the website, and this detail-rich project is also available as a book.