Whooping cranes highlight entry into “1 percent club”

Everyone has had a day or two or ten that defy explanation.  Everyone has seen activities that also defy explanation.

Whooping crane (Tim Krause photo)

Whooping crane (Tim Krause photo)

I got to experience both this past Sunday.  I went birding — running around Wood, Juneau and Adams counties with a couple of friends and a three-legged St. Bernard dog on a search for who-knows-what and finding plenty of it.

By that I mean that I’m not sure I can convey very well what happened in the six or so hours we were wandering central Wisconsin. Normally that’s reason for me to puzzle something out until I can articulate every last detail, but in this case it didn’t matter what I did, and I had a grand time doing it.

My gracious hosts were Tim Krause, Christina Streiff and Mollie Bigdawg Krause (the aforementioned St. Bernard).  They had agreed to let me hang out with them while they went on one of their many trips around the state, often in the form of daylong excursions each Saturday and Sunday when they have no other plans.

Birding is one of those avocations that’s easy for folks to make fun of.  Many would know it as “birdwatching” – a term that one had best use cautiously around serious birders – and allow the word to conjure up images of pith-helmeted retirees with binoculars tottering madly around any nearby open landscape on the search for oddly named avians.

Although birders are anything but that, I have, in fact, seen such stereotypical descriptions in media.  I once published a scholarly journal article on the subject of rhetoric in newspaper accounts about the economic impact of birding and other nature-based tourism.  Or, in plain language, I analyzed some  500 pieces that talked about the money birders might spend in our local communities when not gallivanting about our parks, sewage facilities (no kidding) and backyards in search of their elusive quarry.

My co-authors on the piece were fairly serious birders who took me out a few times for very short periods – a couple of hours occasionally near home in Texas and Kansas, where we saw creatures like painted buntings and black-capped vireos.  These co-authors are the kind of folks who would travel for hours to see a bird they’ve heard showed up someplace; one of them, in fact, recently traveled close to 700 miles to see a Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado.

My wife is a birder, although not a particularly serious one – she keeps a “life list” that has a little more than a couple of hundred birds on it, but hasn’t been out in a while. She has the advantage of having grown up in Costa Rica, one of the world’s most densely biodiverse countries; before we married, she was involved in guiding some nature tours.

So I’ve become fairly familiar with birding from a bit of a distance – reading a ton of stuff about it, talking to people who really know it, and occasionally getting a chance to take part in it, but never really knowing what the heck I was doing.

Although I certainly can’t approach what Tim describes as his “almost obsessive” weekend trips to photograph birds and I don’t feel the birding’s appeal with as much intensity, I can certainly understand and appreciate it. Birding is a wonderful way to spend any amount of time.

During the late morning and all afternoon Sunday, Christina, Mollie, Tim and I roamed the many thousands of preserved acres in and around the Sandhill State Wildlife Area, Wood County Wildlife Area, and Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  Because I was just unwinding from an exhausting week, I found it tough to pinpoint any single aspect of the trip as particularly better than the rest.

Or maybe I just don’t have a good grasp of the obvious.  Tim had an idea of what it our highlight might be when he said to me, “Welcome to the 1 percent club.”

He meant that, because we had just observed our third pair of whooping cranes late in the afternoon while driving near Leola Marsh State Wildlife area, I had seen roughly six of the 600 or so remaining whoopers in the world, most of whom are now on their way from Canada to Texas for the winter.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there were only 21 whooping cranes remaining in the wild in 1941; 15 were in a Canadian group and six more lived year-round in Louisiana before they all died out. All the currently remaining whoopers are descended from the Canadian flock.

About 440 live in the wild and another 160 in captivity, according to the lab. Those in Wisconsin are part of a small, reintroduced population that migrates to Florida – the only migratory reintroductions to the world population.

Whooping cranes are remarkable birds – the tallest in North America (up to 5 feet) and described as having a “smooth and stately gait” and a courtship dance that is “a spectacle of leaping, kicking, head-pumping and wing-sweeping.”

We got to see that stately gait in a pair that wandered to within about 15 yards of us and several other photographers in Adams County.  Tim captured a couple of really nice shots that highlight the crane’s yellow eyes and the red patch that extends from its cheek, along the bill and over the top of its head.

I’d heard enough about whoopers to know we were in the presence of bird royalty.  Never much of a celebrity-watcher, I didn’t allow myself to get too excited.  Yet I understand that this isn’t just another “American Idol” contestant; whooping cranes are a real testament to our ability to keep important parts of our natural world from disappearing before our very eyes.

Make no mistake – these birds are still very much endangered, and I owe Tim, Christina and Mollie a huge debt for taking me out on what might have been the last really beautiful day of the fall and sharing a fantastic experience.

We also saw a few harriers, a bald eagle, some sandhill cranes, and various other winged friends, as well as plenty of sunlight and the last remaining colors of the fall.

Like all outdoor activity, the day wasn’t just about seeing wildlife.  It was a great chance to catch up with Tim, meet Christina and Mollie, and talk a little shop and a lot of birding.  The hours kind of flew by, so to speak, and in general just we just enjoyed a leisurely day on some of the lands our fellow citizens haven’t yet sold off, paved over or otherwise ruined for weekend enjoyment.

That was more than enough to make a successful end to one week and a great start to another.

Wisconsin critical to whooper survival

Many folks have heard of Wisconsin’s role in helping increase the population of whooping cranes, and it’s a topic I’ll return to in the future.  For now, it’s worth reminding ourselves to support such efforts as Operation Migration, which has a fine web site at http://www.operationmigration.org.

Using ultralight aircraft, the organization is crucial to efforts to imprint young whooping cranes with their migration routes from Wisconsin to Florida. The web site has a number of interesting videos, current migration timelines, and other information about the whoopers and the important role we can play in their survival, both in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Speaking of birds – get to the museum!

As far as I’m concerned, there are direct connections between appreciating nature in the outdoors, supporting nature, and appreciating nature through art.  So here’s a last-minute reminder to consider visiting the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum’s bird-art exhibits before “Birds in Art 2015” ends on Nov. 29.

This wonderful Wausau museum is best known, of course, for its permanent bird-art displays and its fall festival of bird-related art.  That seasonal celebration ends soon, so head north from Point sometime before the end of Thanksgiving weekend to take advantage of it.

“Birds in Art 2015” features 123 all-new works. The 40th annual celebration “celebrates avian marvels through fresh interpretations in original paintings, sculptures, and graphics created within the last three years,” according to the museum.

There are several other exhibits there now, as well as the always-amazing sculpture garden. More information is available by contacting the museum at (715) 845-7010 or via e-mail at museum@lywam.org.  The web site is http://www.lywam.org.

Bike & pedestrian committee meets

I had meant to attend the Nov. 17 meeting of the Stevens Point Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, but was far too caught up in the real world of work.  Fortunately, Bob Fisch, “Chief Bike Fun Officer of Poky Pedaling,” has a fine blog that he dedicates to what he calls “bikey stuff.”

Bob did a great job of summarizing the day’s work by the committee, which took no formal action but discussed a number of important items.

One was creating a flyer to educate the public on bicycle registration ordinances.  Another was ways to increase compliance with sidewalk snow-shoveling ordinances.

An abandoned-bicycle ordinance, adding more bike parking to Mead Park, a bike-share program, and Portage County’s bike and pedestrian plan were also among topics of conversation.

Bob – who is an interested citizen and not one of the five committee member s – has more details on these issues on his site.  It’s available at http://www.pokypedalingstevenspoint.org.

Many thanks to Bob for helping keep the public informed about these subjects.

Author’s note:  This is my Nov. 19 column from the Portage County Gazette.  Many thanks to Tim, Christina & Mollie for inviting me along.  I haven’t even seen my copy of the Gazette yet; apparently the postman gave it to somebody else.

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