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.”




Conservation Leaders and Legends: John Muir

When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. – John Muir

John Muir wrote the words above in late life, looking back on the forces that shaped him. They form the first lines of the autobiographical The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913), and for me they perfectly capture the youthful enthusiasm for the natural world that never left Muir.

His work to preserve the Yosemite Valley, his push for a system of wilderness preservation that became our national parks, his leadership of the Sierra Club from its founding in 1892 until his death in 1914, and his beautiful writings have all earned the Scot-born Muir a place in the hearts of so many.


Ken Burns who made the widely seen 12-part documentary about our national parks believes Muir is even more important than his reputation suggests. Burns said that during the making of the documentary, “as we got to know him” Muir began to seem an equal to the “highest individuals in our country . . .people who have had a transformational effect on who we are.”

(The photo on the left, made by Francis M. Fritz in 1907, is from Wikimedia Commons.)

A Scottish Boy on the Wisconsin Prairie

Not surprisingly, some of Muir’s most ardent admirers today are here in Wisconsin – based in Marquette County where the Muir family settled when they emigrated from Scotland in 1849. John was a lad of 11 then and his official school days were behind him, but some of his happiest boyhood years still ahead. The family of Daniel and Ann Muir, including 3 sons and 5 daughters (the youngest, born in Wisconsin), faced long, hard days working to build a home and farm on the Wisconsin prairie.

As the oldest son, John in particular felt this burden,nonetheless he still managed to educate himself in geometry, literature and philosophy, and perhaps even more importantly, “to botanize.” That was a favorite activity of John’s and the term he used again and again, to describe his happy wanderings and investigations into the natural world he loved so much.

John Muir, c1875. (A Carelton Watkins photo, from Wikimedia Commons)

John Muir, c1875. (A Carelton Watkins photo, from Wikimedia Commons)

Sources for the biographical details of Muir’s life can be found so many places, but you shouldn’t miss the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club website. Before you go exploring there, however, I hope you’ll linger here a while to learn about Muir in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Friends of John Muir

There are still today many descendants of the Scotch and Irish immigrants that were the Muirs’ neighbors in the 19th century. Contemporary residents give a lot of attention to their shared John Muir legacy, I was told by Kathleen McGwin, a descendant of one Muir neighbor. There are always new plans afoot to spotlight the locations and landscapes in Marquette County that are part of John Muir’s story.

Two years ago citizens calling themselves the John Muir Legacy Group decided to adopt a more formal structure, and they’ve incorporated as the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir. Tiffany Lodholz, president of the Friends, said they have 60 active members, as well as nearly 200 Facebook fans, and a busy calendar of hikes, parties, and educational talks.

Mark Martin, conservationist and WFJM board member, points out the rare wetland plants of John Muir Memorial Park to a group touring with Naturalist Jounreys last fall.  (Photo by Ed Pembleton copyright 2014 -- used with permission)

Mark Martin, conservationist and WFJM board member, points out the rare wetland plants of John Muir Memorial Park to a group touring with Naturalist Jounreys last fall. (Photo by Ed Pembleton © 2014 — used with permission)

What drew Tiffany and Kathleen to John Muir in the first place? I asked them via email, and both responded that it was his writings. “I was first inspired by Muir when I read his works in college as an environmental earth science student,” said Tiffany, adding that “moving to the community he grew up in was incredibly serendipitous. . .”

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)

Kathleen McGwin, active with the Montello Historic Preservation Society, as well as Wisconsin Friends of John Muir, is a writer herself. Together with fellow WFJM board member Daryl Christensen, she has published Muir is Still Here: A Marquette County Journal of Discovery, a book described by the Sierra Club as “part travel guide, part chronicle of the past, part guide to self-discovery.”

The Seeds of an Idea: the National Parks

When he was 22. John Muir left Marquette County and attended the University of Wisconsin for nearly three years before beginning a series of wanderings and epic walks that eventually led him to California and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though that is where he found his life’s true purpose, Muir scholars routinely credit his growing-up years in Wisconsin for planting the germ of an idea – parks to preserve wild things – in the young boy’s mind.

Ennis Lake (the Muirs called this Fountain Lake when they settled here) at John Muir Memorial Park. (Photo courtesy of Karen Weiss, WFJM)

Ennis Lake (the Muirs called this Fountain Lake when they settled here) at John Muir Memorial Park. (Photo courtesy of Karen Weiss, WFJM)

Muir wrote enthusiastically of his those years in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth:

The sudden plash into pure wildness – baptism in Nature’s warm heart – how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us . . .Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!:

And in a speech to the Sierra Club in November, 1895, he too, credited Wisconsin for planting the seeds of wildlife preservation:

The preservation of specimen sections of natural flora–bits of pure wilderness–was a fond, favorite notion of mine long before I heard of national parks. When my father came from Scotland, he settled in a fine wild region of Wisconsin, beside a small glacier lake bordered with white pond-lilies…

Marquette County and John Muir’s Legacy

Muir made several well-documented, but unsuccessful attempts during his lifetime to purchase and protect some of the Wisconsin landscape he loved. Over time, though, this wish of Muir’s has materialized, and by 1957, Marquette County had acquired enough of the land that the Muirs had originally settled on to establish the John Muir Memorial Park. In 1972, though still owned by Marquette County, the park was named a state natural area, and in 1988, the Sierra Club purchased additional land which became the park’s restored prairie.

Lily pads in June at John Muir Memorial Park.

Lily pads in June at John Muir Memorial Park.

(The photo above is from Joshua Mayer’s photostream at Flickr.)

Though located right in the busy southern half of the state, Marquette County today still seems like a place that would please John Muir. It’s true that a 60-minute drive in almost any direction from Montello, the county seat, will end in a busy metropolitan area, but within the county itself you’ll never be far from wildlife and nature preserves; this is a place where you might even encounter some of Wisconsin’s precious few whooping cranes.

Just ask the president of the Wisconsin Friends of John Muir. Tiffany Lodholz has seen them – whooping cranes in the wild: “for the first time last summer with my 3-year-old daughter. They were in a field down the road from my house. It was amazing!”

Field with sandhills, and 2 whooping cranes; Marquette County, 2013. (Photo courtesty of Tiffany Lodholz)

Field with sandhills, and 2 whooping cranes; Marquette County, 2013. (Photo courtesty of Tiffany Lodholz)

Canada’s Highest Honor Presented to Dr. George Archibald

World citizen George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, has been presented a new and distinguished high honor. At a ceremony in December in Ottawa, Ontario, Dr. Archibald was presented with the Order of Canada, on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012.

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012.

A press release from ICF called this award “the cornerstone of the Canadian Honours System” and noted that it was awarded to the ICF co-founder in recognition of “his visionary leadership in international conservation efforts over the past 40 years.” Dr. Archibald, who has become a global citizen through his work on behalf of endangered cranes, is a Canadian native, and also a long-time resident of Wisconsin.

In recent years he has been presented many prestigious honors including the first Dan W. Lufkin Prize from The Audubon Society last year. In 2006, Dr. Archibald was chosen as the inaugural winner of the then-brand-new Indianapolis Prize, created by the Indianapolis Zoo to recognize extraordinary efforts in animal conservation.

For more than a century, Wisconsin has been a state that can boast of strong ties to some of the giants in the field of conservation, and Dr. Archibald adds more weight to that legacy. Inspired by his new honor, during January, The Badger and the Whooping Crane plans a series of posts about our conservation icons, including John Muir and Aldo Leopold. More will be written about George Archibald, too. These posts will all be headlined “Wisconsin’s Conservation Legends.” I hope you will look for them!

Will the Whooping Crane Partners Opt for Black Fly Suppression?

By 2005, four individual birds in Wisconsin’s growing flock of whooping cranes had formed pairs and made a first attempt at nesting. No one was surprised when the two nests that resulted were unsuccessful – these were still young and inexperienced birds. When one of the pairs succeeded in 2006 in welcoming the first wild whooping crane hatched in Wisconsin in more than a century, the wildlife community was jubilant. And optimistic that more such successes would naturally be following in succeeding years.

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these - in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these – in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

But three very long years would pass before even a single wild chick would once again hatch in Wisconsin, and four years before another one hatched and survived. Instead of chicks hatching, what was happening during this time were mounting numbers of “nest abandonment.” Over time it was observed that many pairs, after forming and building a nest together, were suddenly leaving that nest and not returning.

WCEP Studies Nest Abandonments

By 2009 this problem was being actively studied and various hypotheses were put forward by officials of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – the actual folks responsible for bringing the whooping crane back to eastern North America, and Wisconsin, in particular. These included theories that maybe the cranes were too inexperienced in the wild, or were undernourished, or too stressed by predators, or harassed by biting black flies, or something else.

I don’t think it took long for the biologists involved in closely monitoring the nesting whooping cranes to notice large numbers of black flies on some of the incubating cranes. But it has taken a while for this, and the various other hypotheses to be tested – science, after all, takes its time, and the scientists, understandably, want to get it right.

Are More Bti Treatments the Answer?

However, the citizen scientists and fans of progress for the whooping cranes in Wisconsin – myself among them – who were tuned into the Wisconsin DNR’s Ask The Experts online chat last week, seemed to be expressing a lot of eagerness for a continuation of Bti treatments to reduce the Black fly population. Bti is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium – considered a good alternative to chemicals used to suppress insects. It was applied in certain areas of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in 2011 and 2012, to see if fewer black flies would result in fewer nest abandonments by whooping cranes.

It seems like it did, in fact, help. Here is a page all about it at the WCEP website. I once saw a picture of a nesting whooping crane covered with nasty looking black flies, and hoped to find and link to it for this post; while my quest for it was unsuccessful, I urge you to look closely at the eggs in the photo on the WCEP page – they are covered with the flies, and seem to tell the story!

At the Ask the Experts event, Davin Lopez, the DNR whooping crane coordinator could only say that the matter is still being studied. But he seemed to promise that a decision will be forthcoming in winter, 2014. The decision will be made by the WCEP partners, but for now Davin offered the opportunity to contact him directly, , for those with more question or comments.

Ask the Experts – The Whooping Crane Edition

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held an online chat about whooping crane migration and other related issues last week. It took place at noon, October 31st.

It was one of the DNR’s series of Ask The Experts online events, where various DNR staff take part in discussions and answer questions about their topic of expertise. There have been sessions on walleye fishing, deer hunting, well water testing, beach monitoring, and so many other topics.

For the Whooping Crane version of Ask The Experts, Davin Lopez – the DNR’s whooping crane coordinator, was joined by 2 other partners in the whooping crane reintroduction efforts in Wisconsin. Joan Garland, outreach coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, and Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, joined Davin in typing back answers to the questions almost as fast as we online chatterers submitted them.

Midway through the chat we learned that there were approximately 100 who were participating! As a participant you have no idea that you are part of such a large virtual audience.

Among the many dozens of questions that were asked, the topic that attracted the most attention – at least 12 questions and comments – was concerned with treatments to reduce the Black fly population (which seems to contribute to the cranes abandoning nests at breeding time) at Necedah NWR. I’ll add a separate post about that, but first, here is a list of some of the topics touched on:

– Although the ultralight-led migration began for this year’s crop of new cranes on October 2nd, there have been no reports of “on migration” sightings of any of the 100-plus adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin. Heather Ray said that generally they don’t begin migration before November.

– She also said that the ultralight migration flights begin with short flights of 5 to 20 miles in distance and gradually expand to 50 and 60 mile flights, as the birds gain experience and stamina.

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

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

– The goal of the whooping crane re-introduction campaign in Wisconsin (technically the campaign is for the entire Eastern half of North America, but Wisconsin is key, as the northern terminus of the flyway that is being established) is 100 individual birds (that goal is within reach) and 25 successful breeding pairs (not even close); actually, Davin Lopez called this “a very rough goal . . . what we need is a self sustaining, growing population.”

– Ray reported that there were 20 breeding pair in Wisconsin in 2013. Unfortunately only 3 chicks hatched from these nests, and only one has survived to fledge. (The survivor is designated #W3-13 – the 3rd chick hatched in the wild in 2013 – and will be migrating south with its parents: #9 from 2003, and #3 from 2004).

– Except for 3 surviving wild chicks (the 2013 survivor, and #w1-06, and #w3-10) all of Wisconsin’s wild whooping cranes were hatched from eggs produced each year by the captive populations at ICF and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Ray said that there are generally 30 and 40 eggs available each year from these sources, and they are split 50/50 between Wisconsin and the new <strong>Louisiana Non-migrating flock; efforts to establish this were launched in 2011.

– One participant commented about a Sandhill Crane hunt, which has been rumored for Wisconsin. He suggested that it would be hard for hunters to distinguish between young whooping crane colts and Sandhills. Joan Garland referred him to a fact sheet at the International Crane Foundation website that addresses the hunting proposal.

– As the chat closed, another guest added this personal note: “Thanks to a school presentation by Joan, my son is hooked on the whooping crane and he wants to be a biologist when he grows up!”

How lucky, that courtesy of the International Crane foundation, I just happen to have a picture of Joan making such a presentation! And here it is:

International Crane Foundation's Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

International Crane Foundation’s Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

[Photo credits: Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, and the International Crane Foundation.]

What? Who? Why?

Big, beautiful, iconic, and highly endangered, the whooping crane – and the unfolding story of its survival against the odds – offers us, I do believe, one of the most memorable wildlife epics of our time. The story pairs the power of nature to endure with the creative power of humans to improve on our many intersections with the natural world.

I started The Badger and the Whooping Crane to join – and hopefully amplify in any small way I can – the chorus of voices telling this story, and in particular, to highlight Wisconsin’s considerable role, since 2001, in this drama.

In between crane news I like to tap the rich vein of news about natural resources in Wisconsin, and share as much as I can. There’s always so much to talk about. 

If you’d like more info about the blog, there is more, on the “About” page.