Monday, February 3, 2014

The Wren Sings On and Whooping Cranes Return to Make Music in the Louisiana Marsh

Singing wren by Burg Ransom
At my house in all seasons and weathers, the male Carolina wren sings.  His faithful singing inspires me.  I recently met some folks, who never stop singing their song they call the “gospel of crane.”  This is a song about bringing the rare, elegant whooping cranes back to the Louisiana landscape after they had been gone for 60 years.  The last one of Louisiana’s wild whooping cranes departed in a helicopter headed to Texas for relocation at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in March of 1950.  This story holds another song by deceased U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John J. Lynch and his daughter, Mary Lynch Courville, who continues to sing her father’s song.   (I will write more about this remarkable lady and her history with whooping cranes in another blog).

In December of 2013 ten juvenile whooping cranes, draped in their intermingled rust-colored and white feathers, arrived at their new home  in the Louisiana wetlands at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WLWCA) located in Vermillion Parish.  These cranes joined the ranks of the 33 surviving cranes from previous introductions by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).  The first group of 10 young whooping cranes arrived in Louisiana on February 11, 2011.

In January I had the privilege of riding through the canals of the marsh to the impoundment at WLWCA, where the cranes are released, to see the results of years of work by many passionate conservationists.  Under a clear, blue winter sky with the wind whispering in the tall, feathery marsh grasses the omnivorous, young whooping cranes strolled through the marsh searching for Louisiana delicacies like crawfish, frogs, and snakes.  A lone, adult male from a previous release chaperoned the youngsters.  According to Sara Zimorski, the whooping crane biologist with LDWF, she will supplement their diet to keep them close to the impoundment, where they can forage in a fenced enclosure, for another two weeks and then they will be on their own.  Sara monitors and tracks the cranes with two kinds of radio transmitters attached to their legs.  They seem to be adapting well to the Louisiana rice/crawfish fields, she said.
Young whooping cranes in fenced enclosure by Amy Ouchley
January 31, 2014
the tall one is a decoy

The behavioral biology of whooping cranes is complex and fascinating.  Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989), Austrian pioneer in the field of animal behavior and world-famous for his studies on imprinting in ducks and geese, gives this definition of “imprinting.”  “Imprinting is a developmental process by which behavior becomes attached to a particular object.”  Biologists learned from other crane projects that whooping cranes could sexually imprint or become attached to humans or sandhill cranes at an early age if they were exposed to them during hatching and rearing.  This situation can seriously impair mating and the reproduction of viable whooping crane offspring.

Zimorski says this.  “Whooping cranes are slow to reproduce.  Reproduction is where you hit the brick wall.  If you can’t get over it, then the project may not be successful.”  Reproductive age in whooping cranes is about 3 years old, and some of the Louisiana whooping cranes are now reaching that age.  Hopefully they will start reproducing more whooping cranes in the wild in the next few years.  The future of the Louisiana project depends on successful whooping crane reproduction in the wild.

It is important that all humans, who interact with whooping cranes, are dressed like a whooping crane and do not talk.  I will blog about “costume/isolation rearing” in the future.  Before we visited the crane area we learned that it was crucial that the young cranes did not see or hear us.  Two small fiberglass blinds on the levee provide a hidden viewing place about 75 yards from the cranes.

I can testify that a reverent silence prevailed among the group of Greater New Orleans Louisiana Master Naturalists, LDWF personnel, and educators, who visited the cranes this day.  As I stood in enthralled wonder inside a blind for a few minutes, the adult crane spread his huge, white wings and displayed the black tips and one of the young birds lifted up in a slow arc up into the blue sky.  As the lone crane flew with neck and legs outstretched over his cohorts, the whooping cranes sang out in high, ringing chortles to each other.  Time seemed to pause for me as I witnessed this miraculous event of a young whooping crane once again flying over the Louisiana marsh.

This morning hearing the wren’s song reminded me of the special moment that I heard whooping crane music in the Louisiana marsh.  Like the wren we must all be faithful to the singing of the songs that matter to us.  I want my grandchildren to hear the all of the songs of the natural world especially that of whooping cranes in Louisiana.  My newest tune is “gospel of crane.”

There is a lot more to learn about this fascinating project to reintroduce whooping cranes to the wilds of Louisiana.  For more information visit the LDWF’s website: 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Anything is Possible in 2014

Anole in Decomposing Tree

New Year’s Day – 2014

Now this is the way to start the year.  A 12 year old boy named John from New York City emailed me and wanted to interview me about Swamper, the swamp rabbit, and the bottomland hardwood ecosystem at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge (BBLNWR).  He was visiting his grandmother in Monroe.  Thanks to the librarians of Ouachita Parish Library John had discovered “Swamper, Letters from a Louisiana Swamp Rabbit”, purchased the book at the BBLNWR gift shop, and read the book.  My friend Ann Smith, vice president of Friends of Black Bayou, directed him to me.  So I met John and his mother, Stacy, at the refuge this morning and we hiked and talked for 3 hours.  My encounter with this intelligent, curious boy, who lives across the street from Central Park in NYC and wanted to know everything about swamp rabbits and the swamp, was amazing.

John was preparing a science project for 6th grade science class and had prepared 10 questions for me. These were not the questions that I normally hear from this level student.  For example here are a few of his questions:  “What effect do natural disasters have on animals in this ecosystem?  What are the top level consumers here?  How do invasive species alter ecosystems?  What is Swamper’s role here?  Do you have distinct seasonal changes here at BBLNWR?”

When I meet someone who wants to look closely at a rotting log and then spies an anole tentatively poking his head out to catch some sun, observes small details like a dead beetle swaying in a web of spider silk, wants to learn how to “phish” up Carolina wrens and take their picture, and studies coots swimming in the lake to see what they are eating; my excitement and enthusiasm are barely contained.

It was a glorious day.  The blue sky was filled with drifting marshmallow clouds and the sun warmed our backs.  There were hundreds of coots making their quirky little noises and performing aquatic stunts in the lake.  The sapsuckers made an appearance after we had studied their precise lines of sap holes in the trees.  We examined the variety of lichens adorning the trees and I said, “it’s a symbiotic relationship between two kingdoms – Fungi and Plantae.”  John said, “Yes, it’s mutualism.”
We visited the cane patch and I showed John the wildlife trails in it and how the swamp rabbit bites the cane off at a 45 degree angle.  He soaked up everything I shared with him and could not wait to get back to NYC to tell his teacher and fellow students about this ecosystem.  This was a day to remember.  Swamper goes to NYC!  Anything is possible in 2014!

                                              John and Amy at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge