One Foot

One Foot

Saturday, March 23, 2013

He only Shoots the Old Bachelors

          Took a little trip to watch the cranes in Nebraska and it gave me an opportunity to talk about game birds with my brother-in-law while in the car.
          I like to think I am a reasonable person about hunting in general, becoming mildly obsessive only if I think it foolish or wasteful.  I eat venison, for example, but deer practically knock on the farm house door.  I don’t however, allow bird hunting.  I think it is wasteful and unfair to my endangered birds.
          So, on this trip, I brought up the subject of turkey hunting, which this particular week seemed to coincide with the breeding season.  It didn’t seem fair to me to shoot turkey at that time.
          So, I asked my brother-in-law, we’ll call him Charles, why would the state allow a hunt during that time
          “Well, he answered, “it’s only the males we’re allowed to shoot.”
          I cast my eyes upon him with a look of incredulous doubt.  “I think that’s my point,” I responded.  “They’re MATING.  It’s not right to shoot them.”
          He gave me a sheepish grin.  “Ah, you don’t need to worry.  We only shoot them after they have mated.”
          “Ahhh,” I nodded with understanding.  “And how do you know if they’ve mated?”
          He grinned again.  “Not to worry,” he said, shaking his head negatively.   “If there’s any doubt, we only shoot the old bachelors.”

          We keep him in the family only because we have grown so attached to him

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Highs and Lows of Birding

You can learn a lot from birds, which may be why an estimated tens of millions individuals engage in watching them in some way.  We are such enthusiasts that we spend some $20 billion a year enjoying this hobby, which breaks down to an average expenditure between $1,500 - $3,400 each, with much of that spent on travel.
Evening Fly-in On the Platte River

            Birding in natural habitat is not for the faint of heart, as it involves endless hours of patience, sometimes in cold/hot conditions, considerable walking, driving or flying, and often humorous apparel changes and slathering on of various lotions.  It can require some expenditure of funds for all that enjoyment, but on the positive side, gives one a certain justification for the thousand dollar lens acquired for that once-in-a-lifetime birding bucket trip.
            Good bird watching seems to coincide with Lent each year, so a few days of the season finds me on my way to the Platte River in Nebraska.  On the way, I was contemplating the “big wind” windmills on the prairie we were passing and the alleged endangerment to the greater prairie chicken habitat when we came upon the first dramatic bird event of the trip.
            A hen pheasant had been struck by a car in the near freeway lane, apparently only moments before; its mate had escaped uninjured.  I slowed to avoid him and observed his distress as he paced around her body, wild-eyed and confused.  I was convinced he was grieving the loss of his soul-mate.  While pheasants do take more than one mate, often establishing a harem in a locale, the loss of this female was clearly distressing to him.  The image sent me on with a heavy heart to watch cranes in their migratory path.
            “Cranes mate for life.”  This was the first fact presented at the Rowe Sanctuary where we had reservations for a blind and it was a fact repeated by hundreds over the next few days.  This seemed to interest people greatly, even more than the incredibly low weight of the lessor crane, the wing span, the distance flown, etc.  I speculated that the fact that they do mate for life bonds us to their fragile existence and presents the reality of their struggle to exist.  A brood of two, at best, or more often a single “colt” makes it difficult for the species to increase in numbers.
            I have observed the cranes in native habitat, where I have loved their beauty and song, but observing them in migration gave me a better understanding of the complexity of their survival.  In an approximate twelve mile radius of the sanctuary on the Platte in Kearny, NE, 500,000 Sandhill cranes come to rest, feed and recuperate before journeying on to their nesting grounds.  By day they spread out over miles of grain field stubble; by night they fly in to the river to rest in unified safety and socialization.
Display of crane nesting
            The evening roost is triggered by temperature, signaling evening.  Families and groups rise to the skies, forming loose letter “V’s, W’s and m” ribbons high above us.  The groups seem to fly endlessly, circling toward the river and calling to each other and the entire sky as they attempt to noisily find an appropriate spot on the river and alight at a time coinciding with sundown. 
            The cacophonous squabbling and sounding of the birds continued, reaching a higher volume as the birds circle and ebb, eventually landing near the river in a wet meadow for a late afternoon snack before bedtime.  Finally in a great crescendo of calling they rise into the air - the sound resembles the great crowd noises at a world event -it is a mix of voice and flapping rising like applause.
            Again they circle in groups and eventually the first few land in the river, only inches deep with sandbars exposed in nearly half the river’s width.  As they bounce down and strut walk, they continue to call in support and signal until others join them and the river is filled with thousands of birds, their dark shapes now in near silhouette against the orange melting sundown.
            Finally, the river is filled with 500,000 birds which are far from quiet and restful. Activity continues as first one hops, another squawks and still another bursts into a short flight as they find just the right place to stand for the night.  They will continue in this manner, eventually quieting for the night until they tuck their head under a wing and rest.  Here they are safe from predators.  Their voices take on a rhythm that I compared to snoring, another to purring.  It is simply crane-like and it is a comforting and assuring sound of togetherness.
            As light dawns in the east, the whole process is reversed.  Birds awake, untuck their heads from their wing and the vocal exchanges begin anew.  The volume increases and birds again begin to hop, shuffle and converse.
            The morning fly-out is even louder than the fly-in of the evening before.  The noise takes on a pulsation and crescendos again as one family calls to another.  There seems to be some volume level to reach before the first group is excited enough to rise from the river, but when they do, the noise rises even more in a great thunderous combination of honks, squawks and sheer volume.  As a few hundred, then a thousand, and then many thousands rise, the emotion rises in me as well and as the entire river rises before us, circling, encouraging and calling, tears form in my eyes as it would as the air force jet flies overhead on the 4th of July.  My chest hurt from the emotion and whatever that instinctual noise created in the rest of the great flock, it was also created in me and I was with them in their unity. 
            Later that day we would leave for home and we packed up the heavy clothing, gloves, binoculars and cameras.  We will all have gorgeous pictures to remember the trip, but it will be the combination of auditory, visual and the powerful kinesthetic memories that we all take home with us.  As I look at the picture above my desk of the sunset over the Platte River and the cranes settling into the river, it will be a complex and rich memory to treasure.