The more you are around different birders, the more enlightened you become about various opportunities not far from home. Thanks to a birding friend, who shall rename nameless in this post, I learned that it was possible to see both Whooping Cranes and Kirtland’s Warblers just 5 hours and change from my house in next door Wisconsin. I’ll explain more at the end of the post why I’m keeping my friend anonymous, but he or she knows who he/she is. And that he/she is pretty awesome. 🙂
So on June 12th, Evan, Tommy, and I embarked on an overnight trip to central Wisconsin to go after these two birds which would obviously be lifers for all of us. Our first destination in Wisconsin was Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to look for the Whooping Crane. Whooping Cranes can be found in several places in Wisconsin, but we were told Necedah had good numbers, therefore making it the best spot to try. By good numbers, I’m talking about no more than a dozen birds as there are only 300+ Whoopers in the world today.
As we drove through forests upon entering Necedah, we were somewhat baffled that Cranes live here. However, almost immediately we spied a road that seemed to go toward an open, marshy area. So we took it. A minute later, I spotted the first Whooping Crane for our group. Cool! It was pretty far out, but even still we could see just how massive it was.
The three of us got out of the car to enjoy this easy lifer. Then I looked back toward the vehicle and spied a second bird in a waterway that had been hidden by some trees. This one was much closer to the road and gave us some great photo ops.
As we watched this Crane, something special happened. This one threw back its head and bugled for us! It was the loudest and coolest thing I’ve ever heard come out of a bird. It sounded kind of like a Trumpeter Swan, only much more impressive. Speaking of impressive, this bird stands at 52″ tall before it does this. That’s roughly the same height as Evan.
The three of us really enjoyed watching these birds.
Here are Evan and Tommy each observing a different Crane. The one Tommy is looking at is visible in the photo. Evan is looking at the first one we found.
The Whooping Crane is one massive bird:
This cooperative bird eventually flew off and joined the much more distant Whooper. So the three of us decided to keep exploring Necedah. Necedah ended up being a phenomenal birding spot, so much so that I will save the rest for a different post and just focus on the Cranes from there in this post. I’ll just say that Necedah plays host to some other beautiful birds, who are also struggling in numbers.
One of our stops at Necedah was the Visitors Center which is another great place to see Whoopers, even if it is from a distance. Here we saw two more. These birds were a long ways away. It just goes to show how big and how white these things are. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Visitors Center also allowed us a humorous reprieve from the serious birding with some clowning around and a photo op.
As I was monkeying with the settings for the self-timer on my camera, I ended up getting this gem on accident.
Now we move on to Part Two of the endangered species search which occurred the very next morning, the hunt for the Kirtland’s Warbler. This post is bittersweet for me, sweet because we had smashing success with the Whooper, bitter because the Kirtland’s encounter was mediocre. I suppose, though, that “bittersweet” is how you would describe any endangered species sighting–a thrill to see such a bird only to be tempered with the knowledge of how few of them there are.
Anyway, thanks to my previously mentioned birding friend, we had a good idea of where to look for the now regularly established Adams County population of Kirtland’s Warblers. Joining us were Arizona birding friends Gordon Karre and Chris Rohrer who were also in Wisconsin for some birding. So just how good was the spot we were in? Well, when you are standing on a public road and get interrogated by two separate KIWA nest monitors AND a WDNR conservation officer, you know you are in the hot zone. Let me tell you that Wisconsin is all about protecting this bird, of which there are only a few dozen in the state. The bulk of Kirtland’s Warblers (maybe 4,000 birds) reside in the Grayling, Michigan area. That is where most birders eventually go to get their lifer. After license plate numbers were taken down and we were pre-warned (even without doing anything wrong) while standing on a public road, we dared not do anything immoral or illegal, lest some black helicopters would appear from the horizon to take us away to some secret government prison. Those Warblers are safer than any government secret; not even Ft. Knox is so well guarded. Humor aside, the nest monitors and conservation officer were friendly and courteous, but stern. We could tell that the nest monitors wanted to help us out further, but they were very honorable in their actions and did not compromise whatever solemn vow they took for the WDNR not to disclose any information. And full disclosure here: my birding friend is not one of the KIWA project volunteers; this site is well known to inner-circle birders of central Wisconsin. I will not be disclosing this person’s name or where we were searching in Adams County so as to not get this person in any kind of trouble. We were very grateful for that person’s help.
So did we see it? No, we did not despite trying for several hours. We did get to hear one very close to the road. However, its vocalizations were very infrequent, and it never did pop up to the top of one of the Pines to sing. Regardless, it was neat to be in the proximity of one and hear its loud, distinctive song. There is a Kirtland’s Warbler somewhere in the trees in this photo.
The Kirtland’s Warbler is an interesting species in that it has very specific habitat requirements, mostly large stands of Jack Pine that are about 10 feet tall and have some grassy space in between. Once the trees get taller than that, the Kirtland’s do not use that area anymore. Further complicating this is that Jack Pine cones only open in fire, so keeping appropriate habitat available for this bird is quite the complicated management process involving logging and/or controlled burns. What was cool about the Wisconsin Kirtland’s is that they have adapted to using stands of Red Pines with a mix of some Jack Pine. Because Red Pines are used in the lumber industry, Red Pine forests occur in many areas and are regenerated through normal human activity thus creating stands of trees that are the right height for this bird. What’s neat is that these Warblers are on private land that is owned by a lumber company that is working cooperatively with state and federal government agencies to ensure these Warblers have suitable habitat for several decades to come. Cool, huh?
So we ended up being 1.5 for 2 on our search for two endangered species that call Wisconsin home. It was good to see Gordon again (we’ve now birded together in three states!) and to finally get my Chris Rohrer lifer (a vagrant sighting even!). Those guys tried again for the Kirtland’s the next morning and had tremendous success, getting killer looks and photos. Even though Tommy, Evan, and I didn’t win the entire lottery, it was no doubt a fun, successful trip. Like all good trips, though, it left us wanting more. Wisconsin, we will be back!