Holiday travel and other commitments had caused us to take some time away from the outdoors, so we were eager to get back to some adventures in the New Year. A bitter cold snap dampened our enthusiasm, but we had been looking forward to catching part of the Festival of the Cranes at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. When we saw there was a birding walk scheduled on the afternoon of January 10, we jumped at the opportunity to get outside and to learn a bit more about birds in general and cranes in particular.
This was the fourth annual Festival of the Cranes, and though we have made some recent hikes on the refuge, this was our first visit while the cranes were in residence. Given that neither of us is knowledgeable about birds, we were thinking that a guided hike would be the best option. And wow, did we get some guides — Dr. George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, and the Refuge Manager Dwight Cooley.
We joined a ground of around 25 heavily garbed folks (it was around 35 degrees outside), and started from the headquarters building of the refuge headquarters in Decatur. We weren’t even out the door before birders in the group were enthusiastically identifying the birds flitting around the feeder — “look, a titmouse!” This being our first birding walk, it was our first close experience with folks who suffer in the spring from “warbler’s neck,” as Dwight put it. It’s a humbling experience, as the veteran birdwatchers were snapping out the names of birds like auctioneers, identifying them by their songs, silhouettes, movements, and appearance, while Ruth and I peered through binoculars and camera respectively, both asking, “Where?”
About fifty yards from the building, we stopped while Dwight demonstrated “pishing,” a sound that resembles that of a warning call from various small birds. This sound can attract songbirds, who are presumably drawn to see what the fuss is about. These must be the avian equivalents of people in horror movies who hear a scary sound in the basement and decide they’d better check it out straight away, preferably without turning on any lights, instead of doing something sensible like heading straight to the nearest police station or Marine barracks. Pishing doesn’t work with all birds — apparently it only gets the ones who chirp the equivalent of “hey y’all, watch this” to their buddies.
I don’t know if it was the pishing or not, but a small stand of trees yielded robins, bluebirds, a red bellied woodpecker, and other birds whose names I don’t remember. I swear Dr. Archibald identified a bird as it flew silently behind him. OK, it was a crow, but I saw it. I think he identified it by the sound of the air going over its wings. We worked our way across the parking lot to the Atkenson Trail, a half-mile stroll through wooded area, with openings onto large open fields and at the other end, a bald cypress swamp. On the southeast end of the trail, the group identified more robins and bluebirds, a cedar waxwing, and a personal favorite, a pair of yellow bellied sapsuckers. Those sapsuckers are pretty smart — they peck holes in trees so the sap comes out, then then feed on the insects that come to feed on the sap.
I tried to get some photos of the birds, which makes me appreciate all the more the fine work of wildlife photographers. I’m going to need longer lenses and more practice to get decent photos. To judge from my photos, we saw blotchy unfocused fatbird, silhouette headed pointybeak, and blurry backlit splotchet.
We had come to see the stars of the Festival of the Cranes, and instantly upon opening the car doors we knew they were there. In fact, there were thousands of them — over 9,000 as estimated by Refuge staff. Of course, the Refuge is a great place to hear birdsong, and we heard what we thought was quite a bit of it on our previous visits. But when the cranes are in town, it’s a terrific racket! Sandhill cranes were constantly flying over in small groups, calling to each other. The other birds seemed to kick it up a notch to be heard over them. Just hearing them put a smile on my face!
At the edge of an open field, Dr. Archibald told us about crane behavior. Cranes generally roost in the water overnight, standing on one leg (I imagine they switch them out from time to time). Then in the morning when it warms up a bit, they leave the roost as a group and fly to a staging area, where they land and kind of hang out as a group. They dance and perform various displays, and then fly to their feeding ground, where they fan out and stay most of the day. Toward sunset, they all fly back to the staging area, then head from there to the roost. Dr. Archibald says they go to different feeding grounds every day, and all follow the first two birds to leave the staging area. Apparently during the morning “meeting” at the staging ground, they work out who found the best new feeding area. Cranes have several vocalizations, ranging from “here I am” to “where is everybody,” “warning,” and a sound similar to purring that seems to reflect contentment. He didn’t mention a “hey, y’all, watch this” vocalization so I don’t think pishing will work to attract cranes.
The end of the Atkenson Trail passes over a boardwalk through the cypress swamp, which is apparently a great place to see prothonotary warblers in late March-early April. I don’t think there is a Festival of the Prothonotary Warblers, though. The cost of printing the signs would be prohibitive.
We saw hundreds of sandhill cranes, but to our knowledge didn’t see a whooping crane. The whoopers are the megastars of the crane world. There are only around 600-700 of them left in the wild, and the Wheeler typically has 15-25 of them that winter there. After finishing the hike proper, Ruth and I walked to the observation building, where we just missed seeing one take off. We could see cranes feeding off in the distance, and closer to us, lots of ducks. It’s quite a spectacle to see 50-100 of them spring into flight, wheel around, and land again in the water. One cool feature of the observation building: it has microphones which pick up the bird sounds from outside and pipe them into the building, where you can observe the birds in climate-controlled comfort through large windows.
We walked back along the trail to get photos of cranes flying past on their way to the staging area. Large areas of the refuge are marked as off limits when the cranes are in town, but there was an opening onto a large field that seemed to be under the flyway to the staging area. We were there at sunset. These cranes are typically white or gray, so the setting sun is reflected in the light on their feathers. We did see one solitary larger bird flying in the same direction as the sandhill cranes, so maybe we did see a whooper after all.
You may recall in an earlier hike we came across Brad, the grumpy blue heron. As we were driving out, Ruth spotted him standing sulkily on a shoreline near Highway 67, so we pulled over to have a quick chat. It went something like this.
Chet: Hey, Brad, remember us?
Brad: Yeah. Come back for another neck spearing?
Ruth: No, we’re here for the Festival of the Cranes. They’re pretty impressive!
Brad: Ugh, the cranes. Those loudmouths fly in for a few weeks and everybody loses their minds! I’m here all year. When is the Great Blue Heron Festival, huh?
Chet: You think you deserve a festival?
Brad: Hey, “Great” is my first name. Literally. I can’t get a festival for that?
Ruth: We’ll put in a word for you, OK?
Brad: OK then. So, what did you have for lunch today?
Chet: Actually, it was a vegetarian lunch. And we’re having fish for dinner.
Brad: Did you say fish? Scoot over! I’m catching nothing but a cold here. Set a place for the Great Blue Heron!
(The back door opens and the heron jumps into the back seat. Unseen by the driver and passengers, the king and queen of the whooping cranes, a prothonotary warbler, and a blurry backlit splotchet fly overhead in formation.)
With our walk out to observation area, we estimate that we hiked 1.5 miles on easy, level trails with natural surfaces or on boardwalks. Not a lot of distance for our first hike of 2016, but we enjoyed seeing something different. Though the Festival is over, the cranes will still be around for a while, so head over to the Wheeler to check them out!