Thursday, August 20, 2015

WI: Trip Log August 10-11: Central Wisconsin NWRs and the Mississippi Flyway

I spent last week in Baraboo, Wisconsin attending a conference  hosted by the Aldo Leopold Foundation. This is Ice Age Country! I had no trouble imagining mammoths and dire wolves and saber toothed tigers, and an abundance of wetlands can only mean one thing for this Mid-Atlantic naturalist - Mississippi Flyway Birds! Much of the flat plain around Baraboo is ancient glacial lake bottom so wetlands abound in all their variations from ponds, bogs, marshes, lakes, and wet prairie.

Necedah NWR

I jumped into a van early in the week with a group touring some NRCS and NWR cooperative wildlife projects and did some birding along the way. We stopped at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge briefly, but after lunch and the end of the tour, I circled back on my own and spent the rest of the day hiking the beautiful trail system. And, lo! LIFEBIRD! Whooping cranes!

By the end of the day I counted six whoopers with two colts (chicks) in sight. The big whoopers chased the sandhill cranes around the marshes and generally kept the smaller cranes on the move. If this had been 1948 I would have been looking at almost half the known population left in the world, as biologists suggest there may have only been 20 individuals left in the wild. After fifty years of careful captive breeding at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and the International Crane Foundation here in Baraboo, WI,   wild populations have slowly increased to about three hundred belonging to two small wild migratory flocks. 

Whoopers and Colt.

The more I looked across the marshes from the big observation tower and the high bluff spotting stations located along the trails, the more cranes I saw! I even got to witness their beautiful dances and listened to their clattering calls and unison songs. The sandhills were way more plentiful and very vocal. I also observed white pelican, red-headed woodpeckers, and a small family of spruce grouse. The good folks at the Visitor Center were pretty excited about the white pelicans and I listened to some senior birders from the area talk about the range shifts of the big birds. 

Chase Scene - Whooper moves Sandhills around the marsh!

Both whooping and sandhill cranes were once very plentiful throughout the Central Flyway until western settlement swept across the Upper Mid-West during the 1800s. But as agriculture quickly mechanized and industrialized,  tens of thousands of acres of marsh were drained to claim for farming wheat and corn. Without standing water to provide safety against predators, the cranes would not breed and their preferred nesting habitat continued to drain and shrink until after WWII when conservationists and biologists took action to save the few that were left.  The National Wildlife refuge System, established by Teddy Roosevelt, worked hard throughout the Central Flyway to reclaim former wetlands and re-establish critical habitat for cranes and many other species of wetland birds that had been in steady decline through the first half of the Twentieth Century. 

Boardwalk trail across the wet meadow and marshes at Necedah NWR.

With re-introduction programs underway by the 1970s and '80s  the endangered whooping crane began making a slow return - painfully slow. Some of difficulties were overcome by changing the way humans interacted with cranes. Biologists learned how to discourage imprinting on humans by wearing crane costumes during feeding times. Teaching young cranes to fly and establish migratory route memory is accomplished by leading small flocks into the skies with ultralight aircraft. When old enough to reintroduce into the wild, young cranes suffered high mortality by predators, vehicle strikes, and mistaken identity during hunting season (though how anyone can mistake a crane for a goose is beyond me). As I hiked the boardwalk trails and across the great grass flats I thought about all the dedicated people who made my being able to see so many whooping cranes in the wild even possible. 

Sandhills and colt.

Globally many bird species are in rapid decline and the equally rapid effects of climate change give little hope that some species can adapt fast enough to survive.   Aldo Leopold worried whether he would hear again the calls of sandhill cranes on the sandbars near his beloved shack and to him during the 1940s the greatest concern was habitat loss. It still is, but habitat conservation on a continental scale is where the greatest attention is being directed by agencies, foundations, and universities. International treaties and conservation initiatives are creating multi-nation partnerships to protect flyways and the habitat they encompass. Cranes travel extraordinary distances and dont recognize political boundaries, so having international conservation partners is critical to the continued success of whooping and sandhill crane recovery. 

Whooping Crane!

There was only an hour or two of daylight left when I finally left Necedah and I remembered a member of the tour earlier in the day had recommended a visit to Roch-a-Cris State Park to see the rock art there. I drove thirty minutes east to the park and met the park manager at the office.  She gave me a ten minute explanation of the rock art and pointed to what many people suggest are turkey tracks carved into the soft sandstone formation at its base. She puzzled over the tracks which were faint but recognizable as bird feet. 

Canoes in stone.

"I think these are crane tracks," she said, " not turkey like a lot of folks say. The turkey has a rear toe for perching in trees. Cranes have no rear toe, just three long toes forward for walking through wetlands. I think these are crane tracks. Which makes sense given that this area would have been swarming with cranes given how wet is is." The more I studied the three toes carvings the more I agreed with her. There were also canoes, human figures, and raptors etched  into the 'mound' - really a huge stack of sandstone that was once an island in ancient Lake Wisconsin. These high and dry sky islands are all around the flat plain of the region and would have looked much like the well-watered northern lakelands of the Great Lakes region.

Crane tracks rock art.

I hiked all the way around the mound at its base, about a mile on paved road, trying to get a feel for the height and width of the sandstone stack. It stands about 200 feet high and is cloaked in greenery this time of year, a fire-dependent pine and scrub oak forest that climbs the steep flanks of the mound and covers its top. Where the rock art survives a viewing platform keeps people at a safe distance where visitors can also observe the later graffiti of cavalry soldiers (carvings and pock-marks of gunfire) that obliterate much of the indigenous work.

Council house or traders cabin carving.
After my hike around I hiked up! Three hundred and fifty five steps climb the southern flank of the mound to the top of the sky island where a beautiful platform juts out into the breeze, There were mounds near and far - visible from miles away - the tops of which were also islands in the glacial lake. Vultures soared, a red-tailed hawk screeched, and in the nearby red pine boughs a pair of red-breasted nuthatches peeped. What a stunning view! 15,000 years ago the leading edge of the glacial advance was just a few miles from here but it never quite closed the distance and began to recede leaving the Johnson Moraine within view. 

Fish in red-ochre paint near the top of the 200' sandstone stack.

The glacier never made it to the mounds, so the these sandstone stacks were untouched by the carving and smoothing effects of moving ice. The rocks are sharply defined, angled in rough blocks, cracked apart by freeze-thaw weathering so close - just miles - to the great ice sheet. I studied the flat planes of sandstone faces for more evidence of Indian artists and found turkey tracks (with hind toes!) and a painted fish, quite near the top of the mound. The lichen was thick up there and I'm sure it obscured many other carvings and paintings. 

A steep and long climb up!

I had a full day to explore on Tuesday so I awoke at 0430 and jumped into the car for an hour and a half drive east to the Great Horicon Marsh. I've read poems and heard songs about the Horicon, but I wasn't prepared for the how vast it was! Thirty three thousand acres of marsh, pond, and wet prairie complex echoing the rattling calls of sandhill cranes, the Horicon did not disappoint. Another important link in the Central Flyway habitat conservation chain, this vast freshwater marsh and wetland complex is administered by the Horicon NWR and the State of Wisconsin. 

The Horicon - 30,300 acres of wetland!

The sun came up just as I was arriving and as the light improved I observed a sora rail sneaking across a reedy edge of the Rt 49 passage through the upper reach of the NWR. I got out and walked about a mile along the road and back - taking my life into my hands as one huge truck after another roared by nearly blowing my over each time in their wind wakes. I wondered how many birds, turtles, and mammals who cross this road must meet their end here. On a happier note, standing looking out over a mud flat and shallow pond, I counted twenty black-necked stilts, dozens of American coots, fifty or more blue-wing teal, fifty or more green-wing teal, black ducks to numerous to count and many mallards. Clearly the fall migration has begun!

Boardwalk through the shallow weed marsh.

I drove the auto road and couldn't stay in the car for long. I jumped out and hiked every one of the trails all the way through including a long floating boardwalk that snakes its way across a shallow weed marsh. I had the whole place to myself until about nine o'clock when I spotted two lone birders and a fitness walker, but by then I'd walked nearly five miles, heading back to my car. It was all very birdy! Cranes rattled and geese called, but the spring sunrise chorus of warblers and other small forest and meadow birds had mostly gone silent in the late summer morning. Yellowing leaves were beginning to brighten along the woods edge. Prairie flowers were coming into their peak.

The Horicon and Necedah National Wildlife Refuges lie within the Mississippi Flyway, a vast system of migration corridors that birds use to travel between winter feeding grounds and summer nesting grounds. Like the Atlantic Flyway to east, where I live, and the Central and Pacific Flyways to the west, the Mississippi Flyway describes ancient but always shifting aggregates of migration pathways that may be different depending on species. I observed many trumpeter swans in both Necedah and Horicon and compared their sound and head characteristics to the more familiar tundra swan of the Atlantic Flyway. For me, exploring these two valuable Wisconsin links in the Mississippi Flyway path, the distinct sound of the trumpeter swan distinguished this region from the sounds of the tundra swan in the Chesapeake and Susquehanna area.  Flyways have their own bird language and bird sound.   

Black-necked stilt.

The idea of flyways for migratory birds was established in the 1930s and came into common use to describe regions within countries and across continents as aides in establishing regulations for waterfowl hunting and conservation by the 1940s. As conservation science began to include new technologies in tracking birds, banding larger fowl like swans, geese, and cranes, and interpreting data, biologists were able to understand that flyways were not only ancient and evolutionary, but critically essential to provide protection and resources for species survival in the modern human world.  Like many of the natural sciences in the mid-century, bird conservation sciences were using larger and larger concepts to identify population and species conservation goals. But the work still came back to understanding the kinds of birds that used the flyway system.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

With more recent technologies like GIS satellite imaging, and radar, we can see even more broadly how flyways function as 'rivers' of bird movement, but not just for waterfowl or large birds. It is possible today to watch migrations of songbirds along flyway routes at large and fine scale. We are learning that these rivers of bird movement can occur thousands of feet above the ground at night or through the canopy of forests and thickets of undergrowth - sometimes at ground level! Birds will go to where there are abundant resources and tracking their movements with new ways of seeing allow us to realize how important conservation of critical contiguous wetlands, river systems, prairies, and forests really are.  

I visited Aldo Leopold's beloved shack on the Wisconsin River during our conference week and engaged in a great log-bench circle discussion of Leopold's record keeping of birds he saw throughout the seasons. His log books have become valuable records of the phenology of the area. This is something we can all do - just look out the window and record what we see when we see it. It takes no high technology but when it is saved and shared with others our simple day-to-day observations can contribute to much broader studies of change. I always recommend beginning birders sign up for a free Cornell Ebird account and begin keeping their data electronically because no matter how inconsequential you may think it is, amassed as it is by Cornell with thousands of other birders lists and observations, scientists can discover important trends and adaptations to change that small sets of data wouldn't necessarily demonstrate. 

Flyways are always changing. What appears on a map as an established route of migration can actually shift and undulate with seasonal events, drought or storm tracks, and available habitat - habitat that itself can change over the years. Destroying wetlands to convert to cornfields may divert waterfowl to other areas but may attract numbers of grain eaters like large flocks of snow and Canada geese. Reclaiming land to restore as wetlands can establish new resting areas for endangered or threatened species of birds. Better yet, restoring wetland complexes and surrounding watershed landscapes ensures that a flyway has everything all migrating birds need for multiple rest stops along the way.

Great Egret.


Necedah National Wildlife Refuge -
Horicon National Wildlife Refuge - 
Wisconsin DNR Horicon Marsh -

And why haven't you signed up for an Ebird account yet?

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