News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

March 21, 2011

THE OFF SEASON: Craning to see elegance in flight

TERRE HAUTE — Just before midnight last night, spring officially slipped quietly into our back yards, but I doubt that any of us noticed it much this morning as we slurped our coffee or downed our eggs over this newspaper. In fact, there is nothing official about spring’s arrival at all. It comes to us gradually, in a warm south breeze and with the sap running in the veins of our maples. And, this year, it has come not only on the backs of our pond’s peeping frogs, but also on the brilliant white wings of a pair of whooping cranes that decided to take up temporary quarters in a field just east of our place.

I wish I could say that I spotted the two big birds first, but I can’t.

A friend of ours who works at the local bank in town, whose name by the way is Donella Crane — a fact not lost in the good-humored ribbing she’s been taking — told my wife about them a week ago last Saturday.

Donella drives past a covered bridge and over the muddy waters of the Big Raccoon on the way to her teller’s window each day, and she noticed the snow white oddities in a field as she glanced through her passenger-door window one morning. Joanie mentioned the cranes every day afterward.

One of the things I love most about my wife is that she rarely passes up an opportunity to listen to those frogs or to get her hands in the dirt or to look for the squirrel that has built a penthouse for himself a good 50 feet up in a sycamore that looms over our hillside. She loves where we live because we hardly live there alone; there are always turtles or geese or deer around to entertain us. So, as we left the church parking lot Sunday to head home for lunch, I wasn’t a bit surprised when she said, “Let’s go out to the creek to see those birds.”

Within a few minutes we were standing in the stubble along the edge of a muddy cornfield looking at what appeared to be two bright plastic bags on legs milling around 400 yards away. Now, I can squint myself down to fairly decent eyesight when necessary, but I told Joanie that we needed to get home to grab my binoculars — the same pair my grandfather called his “looks” — and come back to our observation post before our stiff-legged friends moved on. We did just that, stopping at home just long enough to grab our Audubon Field Guide off the bookcase and my battered old binoculars case.

The birds were in the same spot, but we were still too far away to see them clearly. We knew that whooping cranes are easily confused with egrets, a bird that is often seen in our parts, and we wanted to be sure that we were, in fact, looking at the real deal. But still in our Sunday shoes and with a stiff north wind in our faces, we headed home happy that we’d at least seen what we had.

A phone call to Donella and several hours later found me near the field again, better equipped this time in boots that were already caked with our sticky clay and in blue jeans and corduroy shirt and ball cap. I wanted to see the birds again, wanted to know that they were cranes, that they had black-tipped wings and a daring dash of red atop the crest of their heads. Knowing I shouldn’t try to approach the birds if I spotted them, I spent over an hour clomping in the mud around the edges of the fields, looking off into the distance for the shallow pools left by receding flood waters. I eventually crossed the road to inspect the calm, green drainage ditches that run toward the foamy brown creek that takes in all the water the Army Corps of Engineers can feed it from Cecil Harden Lake over a dozen winding miles away. But I never saw the birds.

Whooping cranes are rare. In fact, they’re protected under the Endangered Species Act, so it’s illegal to harm them in any way. On the verge of extinction by the time World War II roared through our history, there were, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, only about 525 of them in existence just three years ago, and only 375 of those are left in the wild. In the past 10 years, they have been captive-bred, then taught to follow ultra-light aircraft so they could learn their migratory route from central Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast, mostly in Florida. Some cranes are outfitted with transmitters so groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership can learn more about their trips and habitats.

The huge birds — some may stand as tall as 5 feet and have wingspans of more than 7 feet — also have been reared by foster parents. In past years, whooping crane eggs have been placed in the nests of much more common sandhill cranes in hopes that the latter will raise them. When I read of that program in that old Audubon Guide of ours, reprinted 20 years ago, there were only about 50 whooping cranes alive.

Disappointed by my Sunday evening hike, I contacted Donella again, and I told her to call me at work if she saw the birds the next day. Sure enough, she called after lunch to let me know that they had been spotted, so like most of my students, I pealed out of our school parking lot as soon as I could that day. I was on a mission …

The wind was no less cruel as I spotted the cranes that gray afternoon from my truck window. I had no intention of getting very close to them. I had read that 200 yards is considered more than near enough. I had grabbed my camera this time around, and within a few feet of my tailgate, I stood and watched the pair while drops of rain spat down my neck. 

The birds are magnificent things, and they well aware that I was there, but not so panicked that they stopped bending their unbelievably long necks down to the chilly water to bob for a frog or tadpole. I couldn’t help but wonder, with so many other fields and wetlands and ditches between here and Wisconsin, why this pair chose us, graced us, with their presence. Then, in an instant, they pulled themselves off the ground in a flutter and disappeared into the wood line.

I have learned since that these whoopers are known to many others, particularly the Wabash Valley Audubon Society. Its president, Marty Jones, used a spotting scope to identify the leg bands of the pair. Officially, they were 10-03 and W1-06, and they had spent their winter in Colleton County, South Carolina. A Parke County field was just a rest stop on their way to Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. I’m glad they dropped in.

I used to think that it was only in my youth that I was excitable, that little things fired me up, helped me dream, made me happy, but I had it all wrong. Two whooping cranes came to call on us last week, their trumpet-like honks echoing off the cottonwoods.

And to think, today is just the first day of spring.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.

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