Sunday, June 15, 2014

Florida's Urbanized Sandhill Cranes

In my 62 plus years I have lived in seven states (Wisconsin, North Dakota, Georgia, Nebraska, California, Virginia and Florida), two other countries (the Bahamas Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands) and had 28 different addresses for whatever felt like home at the time.  I have visited six of the seven inhabited continents (plus felt the frigid winds of Antarctica from Ushuaia, Argentina, and from Hobart, Tasmania), been in 111 countries (and counting) and crossed over the boundary of each of the 3,076 counties or parishes in the United States.  Without doubt my most favorite country is Thailand and it’s followed very closely by Argentina, Australia, and South Africa.

Of the states I’ve called home, I miss Wisconsin, Virginia (Washington DC) and Nebraska the most.  My yearnings for Wisconsin are simple – that’s who I am.  Once my ancestors all decided to move to North America from Norway, Germany and the Czech Republic, they converged on the great Cheesehead state and all sorts of genetic mixing followed.  I have not physically lived there since Saturday, January 20, 1979, but I will always be a Packer fan and a Badger fan and a Cheesehead to the core. 

I miss living in northern Virginia and Washington DC because of the history, culture, the politics and the really cheap airfare.  Almost everyone living in NOVA (even some of the drug dealers on the corner of 17th and K Streets NW in the District) eventually develops a keen interest in the rich history of the area.  If you don’t have an interest in the Civil War (that would be the “war of northern aggression” or simply the “nothen wah” in Georgia) before you move there, I promise you will by the time you leave.  With venues like the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Ford’s Theater and the National Theater and the Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts all just a few metro stops away from wherever you are, many people develop an interest in the arts and some like me even begin to sound like they know what they are talking about when it comes to plays and various actors.  Politics, the number one industry in northern Virginia, are self-evident there.  Where else can you go where those talking heads you see on television are dashing in and out of Metro stops with you just like regular people (which they quickly forget that they are).  And cheap airfare - $58 roundtrips from Washington National airport (never EVER call it Reagan Airport) to Louisville, or $238 to Glasgow Scotland for a long weekend, or $520 roundtrip to Dubai in the United Emirates for a few days on the Arabian Peninsula? 

Although it lacks the social and cultural amenities of northern Virginia there are so many things to miss about Nebraska.  Most importantly I miss the people.  The only place other than my natal Wisconsin where I regularly met people who would literally give you the shirt off your back even if you didn’t need it at the time was Nebraska.  Then there is the incomparable Platte River.  Even though thanks to excessive water withdrawal to irrigate surplus corn that results in more set aside programs and more Congressionally-mandated payments to store what’s over produced, there are very few places in North America as majestic and as crucial as is the Platte River.  The river’s importance involves many species of wildlife on top of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people however without the river the continued existence of nearly 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes would be threatened.  And it’s all of those sandhill cranes that show up on the Platte River for 8 weeks every spring that I miss the most about Nebraska.

From about Valentine’s Day until about the 10th of April upwards of 500,000 sandhill cranes converge on the Platte River to prepare themselves for the continuation of their migration to nesting areas in Arctic Canada, western Alaska and eastern Siberia.  It’s along the Platte River where established pairs of sandhill cranes re-strengthen their bond with their mate (unlike humans, sandhill cranes remain mated for life) and should a sandhill crane be looking for a replacement after their mate died, or if you are a young sandhill crane trying to find a mate, the Platte River is the place to make that happen.  I once described the Platte as a sinuous pick up bar for birds and I still cannot think of a better way to explain it.

When I moved from Nebraska to suburban Los Angeles just before the start of crane migration season in 1993 I was afraid that a huge part of who I had become – a fanatic lover of sandhill cranes – would be buried my other more seemingly important things.  In California I worked on many issues like California condor recovery and desert tortoise conservation and trying to figure out ways to keep commercial sea urchin fishermen from killing the endangered California sea otter.  The office I supervised in southern California was responsible for the conservation of 118 species of plants and animals that had been added to the Federal endangered species list or the threatened species list and that left little time to think about sandhill cranes.

From California I moved to northern Virginia where for 14 years I was a regular patron of the Metro subway and bus system.  Although I had a car at times I wondered why I did.  In October 2007 I put exactly four (4) miles on my car the entire month.  With almost everything I needed just a Metro bus or subway ride away there was little need to put miles on my car and that month I barely did.  In Virginia seeing sandhill cranes was a major event.  Unlike Nebraska where you had to shovel them out of the roadway, and even in California where you could see several hundred at a time on the Carrizo Plain in northern Santa Barbara county, in Virginia sandhill cranes qualified for the rare bird alerts. When one or more, no doubt off course headed to or from Florida and the Great Lakes states, showed up near DC they were instantly added to the top of the rare bird alert and I would regularly drop whatever I was doing to dash out to see one.

My last day in my office and the last day I worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service was February 25, 2008.  On that day I left my office three hours early (what were they going to do – fire me?) and walked to the Ballston Metro station. There I removed any clothing that resembled working in Washington plus my wrist watch.  I bundled everything up and threw it in the garbage.  I put on a pair of flip flops and wore them as I rode the subway home one last time.  The following day I put myself and my car on AMTRAK’s Auto Train in suburban DC and headed for Florida.  I was wearing shorts, a Jimmy Buffett t shirt and jesus sandals (and no wrist watch) as the train carried me south.

Exiting the train the next day in Sanford Florida, I noticed as I drove out of the train station that a pair of sandhill cranes stood like sentinels along the roadway as they watched cars pass by.  A little later on the Beltway around Orlando I noticed other pairs of sandhill cranes and in the lawn of a hotel near the intersection of the Beltway and Interstate 4, not far from the entrance to the Ratworld complex, a flock of 12 sandhill cranes foraged vigorously in the recently mowed lawn of the hotel.

In a little over six years living in Florida I have seen sandhill cranes in 34 of the state’s 67 counties and in every county south of Interstate 4. I am lucky where I live in having a rather fecund pair that has produced colts every year I have been here.  Without fail every morning at dawn they fly over my home trumpeting their message to all of cranedom that this landscape is theirs and woe be to any other crane foolish enough to think they could take it over.  Many times at sunset I hear them calling as they settle in on a wetland on the University Park development where they spend every night. 

Unlike Nebraska where if you sneeze loudly you’re likely to cause a flock of 1,000 sandhill cranes to take wing and fly away, in heavily urbanized Florida (there’s hardly any “rural” left in this part of the state) they have come to tolerate humans and our often noisy intrusions.  Several years ago while on my bicycle I witnessed a crane-human interaction on a golf course that still makes me chuckle.  A golfer, totally oblivious to the presence of a pair of cranes and their colt on the fairway, swung his club and hit the ball and sent it on a trajectory for the cranes.  They saw the human and watched as the golf ball sailed closer and closer to them.  As it did the male (I assume it was the male) of the pair began trumpeting his utter contempt for this human-induced indignity.  The golf ball hit the ground and rolled to within inches of the family group of cranes.  The human, now aware of the birds, strolled up to the irate (and vigorously bugling) sandhill crane expecting it to move. But it didn’t.  Instead the sandhill cranes held their ground refusing to budge.  The golfer tried flushing the birds so he could get to his golf ball but the cranes fought back.  The dominant male in the group began pursuing the golfer every time he approached the family.  The bird was not to be intimidated and for a full 30 minutes would not allow the golfer to get to his ball.  I stood along the fairway and watched as the now indignant crane family made their final move.  The male walked up to the golf ball, took it in his mouth, and with a loud trumpeting call that I think would be translated from sandhill craneze as “fuck you,” took wing with his family in pursuit and flew off to some distant wetland.  The score was now - sandhill cranes 1, golfer 0.

This morning while driving on Cattlemen Road near the new rowing/sculling venue I came onto a group of 16 sandhill cranes strutting around in the roadway.  Looking at the coloration on the crowns of the birds it was easy to tell that four of them were this year’s colts and the rest were adults.  They were in no rush to go anywhere and through their slow and deliberate actions held up human traffic on southbound Cattlemen Road.  Eventually tiring of their newfound power, the birds called to each other, took wing, and flew south over the wetland and toward the Meadows. 

I listened to them talk to each other as they flew away and the scene reminded me of the Platte River only in miniature.  Seeing 16 cranes along the Platte River in early March isn’t even a good start, but in Sarasota County Florida that is a pretty nice way to greet the dawn.  As I watched and listened to the flock disappear it dawned on me that my love of Nebraska comes from being with cranes for 8 weeks in the spring and if I was lucky for 4 weeks in the fall.  In Florida, although I can’t see them in numbers anywhere near like what you see in Nebraska, I can see them and hear them and be in touch with sandhill cranes 52 weeks of the year.  They are here any day I need to be around them and that’s even better than Nebraska.