Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Three Species of African Cranes





Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.... Aldo Leopold


If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certainty, that most people with an ecological consciousness remember the day they saw their first sandhill crane. For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had recently earned my driver's license and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about two hours from home - far enough to be "away" but close enough to get home to if it turned out to be too far away.

My main reason for traveling to Crex Meadows that day was to see an osprey, a species of bird that then was almost extinct. Its population was declining at a rapid pace because of chemicals placed in the environment. One of them, DDT, took a special interest in causing the shells of osprey eggs to thin.  Thin eggs meant that adults crushed the eggs when incubating and that meant no baby ospreys. For some reason, however, ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows.  Something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough, I might see one of those fishing eating hawks.

Not long after arriving I found a large reservoir where a group of dead trees occupied the center.  In one of those dead trees was a pair of ospreys repairing winter's damage to last year's nest. Despite my anticipation it took me only a few minutes to see an osprey and begin learning about them - how they flew, how they fed, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble.  About mid-morning I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows.  I searched the southern sky and in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set and there was no motion.  They were losing altitude like a plane would do.  They continued to call this primordial call from as high in the sky as I could detect them. I could tell nothing else about them.

Norman Stone was the first manager of the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. He had been there since the 1940s and probably knew every tree and every grass on his domain by its first and last name. Norm came along in an old beat up pickup truck as he patrolled the area.  When he stopped to ask this sixteen year old kid what I had seen on the marsh I told him about the ospreys.  More importantly I said I was perplexed by this noise in the sky from what I thought was birds but were too far away to really tell.

"Ah," Norm said, "You get to welcome back the first sandhill cranes of the year to Crex Meadows. They should have been here a couple days ago. I guess they just took their time getting up here from Florida." Not knowing a thing about sandhill cranes I asked Norm for more information and like a gushing river he filled me with his knowledge of where they come from what they do, how they live how they die and what makes a crane a crane. Stone also told me that sandhill cranes were a living reminder of primordial America. They were on the landscape long before the American bison showed up and with luck they would be on the landscape many years after humans take leave of the planet.

Stone also told me about a story in a book by Aldo Leopold that I needed to read. The story was called "A Marshland Elegy" and it was an essay in a book called A Sand County Almanac. Norm told me "If you want to understand how things were and why they are today like they are today you need to read that book. And when you do you'll know a lot more about sandhill cranes."  As I stood on the road by the reservoir and listened to Norm tell me about cranes, the birds I had heard now looked like gigantic bombers making their final approach to the meadows.  They ultimately heralded their arrival with a triumphant bugle once they stood on the ground. It was a sound that never left me.

In 1979 I was conducting research designed to figure out how to keep water in the Nebraska’s Platte River for sandhill cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than eighty percent of the world's sandhill cranes descended on the Platte River each spring where they prepared themselves for the rest of their migration to northern Canada, western Alaska and to eastern Siberia.  I vividly remember a conversation one March morning with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I was with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He waved me down, gave me a thorough chewing out because of who employed me and then informed me in no uncertain terms that I should carry a side arm for protection "because you're trying to save those god damned cranes."  I owned a .357 magnum pistol at the time and it promptly went under the front seat of my car no matter where I drove.

Luckily with the passage of time and education efforts the attitudes about cranes on the Platte River have changed dramatically. Where once farmers were threatening my life because I was protecting a bird, now those same farmers referred to them as "our cranes." Where once the Omaha World-Herald newspaper wrote editorials bemoaning how water flowing down the Platte River that hadn't irrigated corn was wasted water, that same newspaper now writes editorials about the need to protect an obscure flower from going extinct.

Throughout my career as a wildlife biologist I was able to study sandhill cranes in Alaska, central Canada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming. I once spent ten days with them in Cuba and still remember the blistering cold morning on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea watching a flock of sandhill cranes fly over me and land in Russia just a few miles away.

Living in Florida we are lucky to have so many sandhill cranes in so many places. For me I often don't need an alarm clock in the morning. I am regularly blasted out of bed by the duetting call of a pair of sandhill cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory. Each morning the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is theirs and any interlopers better keep on keeping on.

Of all the nearly 6,000 species of birds I have seen worldwide I feel no greater kinship with or love for any species except sandhill cranes and with that kinship a love of all species of cranes has blossomed.  I watch and listen to them every chance I get. And each time I do I still have a synapse in the back of my head that reminds me of that day long ago when I first heard them herald their triumphant arrival on a primordial marsh in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.

 Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska's Platte River - the ONLY place to watch Sandhill's

No matter where I have traveled in the world I have always sought out cranes. Something about their voice and their antics and simply their being makes me grounded. I have fond memories of a flock of common cranes migrating overhead one morning in Luxembourg and I will never forget the sight of brolga cranes dancing and displaying to each other on the edge of the Outback region of Australia.  Then there was the rush I experienced along the Platte River when one day I picked up a child with muscular dystrophy and held him up to my spotting scope so he could look at a whooping crane feeding in a field.  I’ll never forget the feeling of that tiny battered body tensing and then shaking as he screamed out “I see it!” when the regal bird walked into his view.  For that same primal reason, cranes took my breath away long ago they continue to do so today.

Six crane species occur on the African continent and four of them are found nowhere else on earth than there.  Three of those four can be found in South Africa and from almost the moment I  stepped off the plane in Johannesburg, seeing any of the three species was very important to me.  With a large dose of luck I might even be able to see all three.

I had driven west from the Mozambique border and began climbing a prominent escarpment.  To the east the vegetation was lush and verdant.  Some type of conifer dotted the higher slopes.  Thickets of some unknown shrubby vegetation choked the banks of the frequent stream beds.  Signs along the highway told of places to fish for trout or just escape to your own nirvana in a mountain retreat. That all changed at the crest of the escarpment near Machado.

Beyond Machado the landscape was dominated by grasslands and wetlands scattered among agricultural fields.  For as far as I could see in any direction I felt like I was back in Kidder County, North Dakota taking in an agricultural landscape of wheat fields and wetlands.  Interspersed on the landscape was an abundance of natural wetlands (viels in South Africa) and small reservoirs (dams in South Africa).  Each wetland was ringed with luxuriant vegetation and red-knobbed coots and yellow-billed ducks floated like fishing bobbers on the surface.

Wattled Cranes in South Africa 

In the distance, on the far side of one wetland at the edge of an agricultural field I found three wattled cranes.  Standing about six feet tall they are among the tallest of any crane species. Given the time of year I assumed that three birds together was a family group.  Amazed by their enormous size I stood by the roadside and watched and listened.  I hoped to hear their voice or maybe to watch some displays but these birds were only intent on feeding.  I watched them until something spooked them into flight.  They circled the wetland and then disappeared over a small hill.  Had I arrived there fifteen minutes later I would have never seen these birds. They were the only wattled cranes of the trip.

Blue crane is the national bird of South Africa.  Although much smaller than their gigantic wattled cousin, blue crane make up for their diminutiveness by projecting an aura of ethereal regality.  My first blue cranes were just north of Wakkerstroom.  It was late afternoon and a family group of three strolled effortlessly across the recently-burned grasslands.  Occasionally they would stop and two birds would pick at something on the ground while the third bird remained alert for signs of danger.  Eventually the two birds took on a vigilant pose as the third one sought out food. 

Blue Crane

A gentle cold breeze was blowing across the landscape from the south.  Blue cranes have large, long, conspicuous feathers on the edge of their wings.  One of the cranes, probably the adult male, spread its wings into the wind as the feathers gently pulsed in the breeze.  I heard their voice once and then like the two adults began to display.  Unlike human beings, cranes remain mated for life.  Also unlike humans, cranes go through elaborate rituals to maintain a bond with their mate.  Each of those rituals involves some form of dancing and bowing and dipping of their head and wings.  It’s all designed to reassure the mate that you’re still theirs.  With the gentle wind blowing through the male’s outstretched wings he began to strut and dance and dip his head.  I stood by this dirt road and watched them until sunset. The adults called to each other, all three birds took flight, and they disappeared into the gathering darkness.

Various words like regal and striking and stately have been used to describe cranes and for the most part those words are fitting.  However for the two species of crowned crane in Africa, the word majestic also applies.  South Africa is home to the gray crowned crane; black crowned crane occurs further north on the continent.  The combination their black back, white belly, gray neck, black face and the punk rocker orange crown of this species make it so different from all the other species.

I have seen five gray crowned canes in the wild.  I saw them the same morning and along the same road where I saw eight blue cranes just after sunrise.  A strong cold south wind began to blow as the blue cranes danced and preened and fed on insects plucked from the ground. Despite this being my twenty-fifth trip below the equator, I still have difficulty wrapping my head around cold winds from the south and moist tropical winds from the north.

Maybe five miles after I watched the group of eight blue cranes I caught movement from the corner of my eye and I immediately stopped.  Putting my binoculars to my eyes I saw five birds in flight that reminded me of B-52 bombers on their final approach gliding to a stop on the side of a hill.  I didn’t need to use a bird book to know that they were cranes and I didn’t need to use that book to determine their identity.  There was simply no way to not know they were gray crowned cranes. This was the one species I wanted to see more than any other in South Africa.  More than twenty five years earlier I saw my first male resplendent quetzal in a giant fig tree in the cloud forest of Costa Rica.  Its emerald green back and blood red chest shown like a beacon through the tropical forest.  I watched that quetzal for twenty minutes before it disappeared into the forest as quietly as it had arrived.  As it did I told myself that I could die happily because I had seen a quetzal. This morning, on a windswept grassland north of Wakkerstroom, I repeated the same statement.  I had seen a gray crowned crane.  There was little else to look forward to seeing.

Gray-crowned Crane - WOW!

On landing, the cranes began bowing and strutting and displaying.  Some made a bugling noise while others jumped vertically and began to dance.  Once their bond was reconnected the gang of five slowly strutted toward a small reservoir where they drank water, looked for food, and displayed to each other.  Cranes of all species demonstrate very ritualized behaviors  They all dance and call and interact in much the same way whether its sandhill cranes in Cuba or whooping cranes in Texas or brolga cranes on the edge of Australia’s Outback. 

The gray crowned cranes stayed near this wetland for nearly an hour as the now-frigid south wind continued to blow.  Suddenly for no apparent reason one of the gang of five raised its head and looked toward me.  It called loudly and the others became alert. They nervously looked at each other and then on cue they rose in unison into the gusting wind and flew away.  I watched them until they were mere specks on the southern horizon and then they were gone.

Had my trip ended at that moment it would have been a highly successful journey.  I had seen and experienced three species of cranes on the grasslands of South Africa.  Afterwards everything else was secondary. 

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for all the info. I love this post. I have seen 2 of these cranes. I guess I have to see the other one some time. I would love to see them in their native homes-not just the zoo.

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  7. Craig,

    It has been many years since our UWRF days in the Biology Dept! I remember when you were doing your Masters degree and how nervous you were before your orals!

    I have fond memories of everyone in the Bio Dept., especially Dr. Calentine.

    I ended up with a Bachelor's Degree in Earth Science, and a second Bachelor's Degree in Biology. I graduated in 1979.

    I've been lucky in my career doing geology to get to a few of the wild places on earth, including Arctic Canada (Baffin Island, ice core drilling on the Barnes Ice Cap) Alaska (all over the state, doing minerals exploration and other work) including the Yukon Kuskokwim delta area, interior Alaska, and south central Alaska, but mostly working in the Brooks Range mapping glacial geology for the USGS) Antarctica, Chile, New Zealand, Central America (mostly Belize and Guatemala), Mexico, Europe, and Hawaii.

    I was fortunate enough to see sandhills on their nesting grounds while I worked in Alaska. What a beautiful sight! I also worked in Wyoming for awhile after I graduated from UWRF in 1979. I remember a canoe trip I took on the North Platte River near Casper, where I was living at the time. It wasn't sandhill cranes, but rather a sighting of Canada geese, whch at that time were not very common, that gave me the feeling that you talk about when you see sandhill cranes. It was an awesome feeling at the time that I have never forgotten.

    I see by your blog you are now located in Florida. After being all over the place, I returned home to Hudson and am married with a wife and three kids in college. My son Derek is at UWRF, and my older son David is at Stout. My daughter Sarah will be attending UW Madison in the fall.

    I'm currently a supervisor working in the Public Works Department for the City of Minneapolis.

    I got to your blog via the Crex Meadows web site. I have a cabin not too far away in the Barrens near Cushing.

    I spend time at Crex whenever I get a chance. I like wild ricing, which I do mostly at Crex. Of course I get out doors as much as I can, hunting, fishing, and doing 41 years of canoeing in Canada.

    Hope you are doing fine!

    Dan Bauer
    Hudson, WI

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  8. I got introduced to Crex Meadows several years ago, just after seeing my first sandhill cranes ever. Since then I have made sure to find time every fall to hit there in the evenings as thousands collect for their staging areas before their southward migration on November. One year three young whooping cranes joined them and I had the joy of watching them for nearly an hour before they found a different field where my car couldn't follow. These days, to find Crex you just drive to Grantsburg, WI and follow the line of painted geese on the road right to it.

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