Grasshopper, his unnamed sandhill mate, and their offspring, Whoopsie. (Photo by Vaughn Compton)

Grasshopper, his unnamed sandhill mate, and their offspring, Whoopsie. (Photo by Vaughn Compton)

 

Horicon Marsh, about an hour northwest of Madison, spans 32,000 acres, making it one of the largest cattail marshes in the United States. The northern two-thirds is a National Wildlife Refuge while the southern third is a Wisconsin State Wildlife Area. With its size and richness, Horicon sustains healthy populations of wetland breeding birds that are barely  present in the Chicago region anymore. I had not been up there for a while and Tim Wallace, who lives an hour north of me, visits regularly so it seemed a worthy destination for a day-long field excursion.

Black tern.

Black tern.

A wonderful sight is had as you reach the lip of  a vast and shallow declivity, carved out of limestone  by the last glacier incursion and filled with meltwater that gave birth to the wetland. We traversed the north end first along Route 49. We saw a few yellow-headed blackbirds but not the numbers I expected: likely the singing and posturing of males had ebbed by June  , the date of the trip. We pulled over to the side of the road to identify the large floating mats of ducks. There were mallards, blue-winged teal, shovellers, gadwall, ruddy ducks, and redheads. (The concentration of redheads was a major reason the marsh was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1941: more redheads nest here than anywhere east of the Mississippi.) Forester terns and black terns are virtually gone from northern Illinois but they thrive at Horicon.

Forester's tern.

Forester’s tern.

In previous years, Tim had seen white-faced ibis and black-necked stilts. Horicon is the only place in Wisconsin where stilts nest and I am still amazed that the species now nests in goodly numbers in various places in the Midwest. We did not see any of these species on this trip. The number of white pelicans, another relatively recent arrival as a breeding species, are tremendous. They maybe the most conspicuous bird on the refuge.

And then we come to three special cranes: Grasshopper, a male whooping crane; his unnamed mate who is a female sandhill; and their single progeny, Whoopsie. A couple of years ago, crane conservationists decided on yet another strategy to increase the numbers of this endangered species. Rather than picking breeding and wintering grounds for the birds, scientists have adopted the Direct Fall Release of captive raised individuals. The cranes are being “trained” in Princeton, Wisconsin and then released in the fall at Horicon Marsh to find the sites they themselves find most supportive. Grasshopper is  such a bird and his return to Horicon was deemed a good thing until it became clear he had bred with a sandhill. Interbreeding between the two species is what ruined the first effort to create a new flock back in: whooping cranes eggs were placed under sandhills at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho with the hope they would follow the foster parents south to Bosque del Apache and back. But despite the best laid plans, the whoopers imprinted on the sandhills and then mated with them. Authorities are closely monitoring Grasshopper and his family but the bottom line is clear: Grasshopper’s genetic material is too valuable to share with a member of the world’s most abundant crane species.

Besides Grasshopper, there might be as many as four other whooping cranes at Horicon this summer (it seems to depend on whom you talk to). We were given directions to an area often frequented by the Grasshopper clan. Tim has seen whoopers here before so was familiar with the side road from where they can often be observed.  After looking around without success, we were ready to move on when a car pulled up. We started chatting with the birder/photographer who emerged. Vaughn Compton, from Denver,  was also looking for the crane. After a while, the three of us concluded Grasshopper was not intending to be seen, so once more everyone began the process of leaving. And once more, a new car came down the road and parked in our midst. This time, Rick Vant Hoff, a local birder who is a volunteer with the International Crane Foundation and active in the whooping crane training program, joined the conversation and shared lots of information on the status of local whoopers.  As we listened, Vaughn spotted the objects of our search as they landed in the field that is their normal haunts. They were a ways off but the their visages are clear in Vaughn’s photo.

Tim, Rick, and Vaughn.

Tim, Rick, and Vaughn.

I have been following the efforts to restore whooping cranes to numbers where their future existence need not be in question. One conclusion that their history makes clear: it was a lot easier to nearly wipe them out than to bring them back.

 

Barn swallow.

Barn swallow.

horicon 6 23 2015 050 snake

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