Monday, December 27, 2010

A Tribute to Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee

This post contains a lovely tribute to the eastern population of Greater Sandhill cranes that migrates through my home state of Tennessee.  The slideshow was created by talented members of the Riverwalk Bird Club in southeast Tennessee and features images of sandhill cranes arriving, landing, foraging and departing the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, TN.  Foraging right along with the sandhill cranes, you will also see endangered Whooping cranes that mingle with sandhills at this refuge.

A special 'thank you' to Charles Dean, Bret Douglas, and Cynthia and Jimmy Wilkerson for their beautiful photography!

In recent years the refuge has been a major staging area and the midway point for migrating sandhill cranes who are funneled through the state as the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways come together through Tennessee.  Cranes are attracted to the wide-open confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers which form shallows, safe roosting sites for cranes.  Both sandhill cranes and Whooping cranes must roost in shallow water to find safety from nocturnal predators.  The planting of corn and wheat at the refuge for overwintering waterfowl and other species has provided a place where cranes can forage and rest before continuing on their migration.  In recent years, the weather has been hospitable and food plentiful enough, that many cranes have also wintered over in the refuge area.  This has been a divergence from the population's historical migration pattern.  
Sandhill fly-in at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, TN.  Watercolor by Vickie Henderson.

To read more about this hunt proposal visit the following links:

Sandhill Crane Hunting in TN?  Multiple factors say NO and Sandhill Family Life

Julie Zickefoose's discussion on 10,000 Birds:  Sandhill Cranes: Game Birds? and
Shooting Sandhills in Tennessee

TN Ornithological Society's information and position on the proposed sandhill crane hunt and TN Ornithological Society's letter to the Commission

Gary Louck of Greenback, TN--blog post, Cranes in Peril--gives his own position on the hunt proposal and includes other letters written to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission

Stephen Lyn Bales, author of Ghost Birds:  Sandhill Hunting in Tennessee?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Yellowfin Madtom--A Heart-Warming Fish Story!

Here's a conservation story that will warm your heart, a story about a minnow-size fish that not only came back from extinction, but now thrives in freshwater streams in the southeast. Not an easy journey to be sure. But this fish had some big help--years of hard work and dedication on the part of two biologists, JR Shute and Pat Rakes.  
A nocturnal species that looks and acts like a miniature catfish, the Yellowfin Madtom has typical catfish spines and whiskers (barbels), and a potent sting if you should come in contact with one of those spines.  But even more impressive, the little fish has personality! The male of the species digs a nest cavity near a rock slab to invite a female to deposit her eggs.  After spawning, the male then spends the next four weeks hiding under that rock slab guarding the nest, even taking the eggs into his mouth from time to time to clean away silt. All of this, without eating any food for himself during the entire period.    
Pat Rakes (left) and JR Shute were interviewed by American Public Media earlier this month.  Click this link to hear them talk about the survival of this little madtom, what went wrong with its world, and how they're trying to help fix it.  (Scroll down the linked page to find the audio controls.)    

Below, JR's video showing the release of Yellowfin Madtoms.  Not only does Conservation Fisheries raise rare and endangered fish in captivity to help save and restock species, their work contributes important information about water quality.  When a native species cannot survive in its fresh water stream, that tells us a lot.  Once the stream is cleaned up enough to support these tiny, native fish again, we know our water is in better shape for everyone.  
In addition to this month's NPR interview, the work of Conservation Fisheries has appeared in National Geographic (April 2010, see link below).  And the Yellowfin Madtom image you see below is the artistic work of National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, published here with his permission.  The comeback tale of this small, freshwater fish is one of the many rare species featured in his latest book, Rare, Portraits of America's Endangered Species. 
Listen to Joel's message below.  There is something each of us can do everyday to help our earth and all its species.  
Links and resources:
Located in my home town, Knoxville, TN, visit the fish and staff at Conservation Fisheries, see some of the many native fish they are helping.
Also enjoy their feature article in National Geographic--Silent Streams
Visit Joel Sartore Photography to see his latest book and don't miss his delightful video on rare species.
To read about other intriguing survival stories on this blog see the El Segundo Blue butterfly, the endangered Whooping Crane and the Loggerhead Sea Turtle.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wild Turkey, Bare Feet and Snow Flakes

It snowed in east Tennessee this afternoon, and its still snowing as I write.
I looked out at the sunflower feeder around 4:00 pm and decided to top it off before it got any colder.  No fuss--just a quick trip out the door.  Even though I knew it was cold (23 degrees F), I left my feet sock-less in canoe shoes, slipped into a fleece jacket and grabbed the seed.  I finished topping off the feeder, added a chunk of suet to the basket, turned toward the door, and came face-to-face with a parade of turkeys coming around the corner of the house.
"Ah, look who's here,"  I said.  They didn't react, just continued on their path. We've met before, but I don't normally speak and I expected that to give them a start.  It didn't. And that made everything grand--fluffy, puffed up turkeys hanging around the yard in falling snow.
I stepped back inside to get my camera, and no, I didn't bother to put on coat or socks.  I just wanted to catch up with them before they left.  I'm laughing as I recall this.  I did catch up.  I just strolled over closer to the edge of the woods where I knew they would eventually go.  Still standing on the patio surface, I took snaps in the dim light, thinking they would, any minute now, disappear down the hill, into the woods.  But no, not today. They stopped to forage and even doubled back in my direction!
Okay, so I'm delighted.  But I'm starting to not feel my toes and fingers.  Its now registering with me that its a lot colder than yesterday, and too cold to be bare footed. Ugh.  What a predicament!   All's well with the birds but not so well with me. So I leave my guests, go back inside to tug on socks, shoes, a warm jacket and mittens, and come back to try again.
And they still didn't mind my presence.  What a treat!  I love these guys.  They are so expressive, the fluffed up feathers, scratching in the grass, sending snow flurrying up in thick puffs.  And they didn't retreat, sulk away, or take flight. Charmed me to my bones. I like to think they like me. But my guess is, they don't think I'm anything to hurry-up about.
After all, I do the same thing every time we meet--open the door, keep my polite distance, and make tiny clicking noises.  How scary can that be?
Related links:
Visit my other wild turkey posts on this blog and see more fun sketching turkeys at Vickie's Sketchbook.
Also visit Marsha Davis' article on Quirky Turkey Facts.  Interesting stuff about how the gizzard works and then it gets very weird!

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly #120 at Bird to promote the conservation of our world's birds.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly--A Story of Survival

'Wow' was all I could say when I heard about this little butterfly.  And then I read it's story.  

Named for the El Segundo coastal dunes along California's Santa Monica Bay in which it lives, the El Segundo blue butterfly--Euphilotes battoides allym--survived in three fragmented habitats a few years ago, the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) preserve, the Chevron El Segundo Refinery preserve, and in Malaga Cove on the Palos Verdes Pennisula.  Now due to more than thirty years of native plant restorative efforts and research, it also is occurring on dune preserves in Rodondo and Torrence.

A specialist species measuring less than an inch in size, it spends its entire life cycle in and around one plant, the Seacliff Buckwheat, also called Coast or Dune Buckwheat--Eriogonum parvifolium--and the life of the butterfly itself only lasts a few days.  It nectars on the buckwheat flower, mates, lays its eggs in the blossoms; its larvae eat the flowers and its pupae are formed at the base of the plant, emerging the next season, late June through July, as adult butterflies to start the cycle all over again.

Below, Travis Longcore describes the complex story of this butterfly's survival.  

And for an amazing and awe inspiring look at the timing and interconnected relationships in nature, view the video below.  This one tells the story of the symbiotic relationship between this butterfly species and ants, as well as, the very specialist nature of this butterfly.  Its adult emergence is perfectly timed with the blooming of its sole host plant, the Seacliff Buckwheat.  
As you read about and hear this story, you can't help but notice the human error, development without stewardship, and in turn, the human effort and historical timing that saved this species from extinction.  The endangered species act went into effect just as the disappearance of this butterfly was being noticed in the early 70's.  As a result, it was one of the first butterflies to be listed and protected.  Thirty years later, with the efforts of many dedicated people from all walks of life who organized themselves into action, this butterfly has gone from a scattered remnant population of only 500 to a population that is now flourishing, only because its native habitat is diligently being preserved and restored.

I love these come-back stories, ones that insure us we can make a difference.  And then I wonder how many species go unnoticed, and question why we can't incorporate preservation as a way of life--before a species is endangered.  My greatest hope is that we, the human species around the world, will evolve into that wisdom.  And soon!

Related Links:
Visit my sketches and the story of how I discovered this butterfly at A Restaurant, an Endangered Butterfly and a Life Bird at Vickie's Sketchbook.
Summary of the El Segundo Blue Butterfly's conservation history.  More about the butterfly's life history
The conservation efforts at Chevron's El Segundo Refinery. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I AND THE BIRD #139 Hosted by "From the Faraway, Nearby"

NBR - National Birding Radio - Most Popular Birding Stories of the Year

For those of you familiar with Timothy Ryan's blog,  From the Faraway, Nearby, it will come as no surprise to you that his theme as host for "I And The Bird" blog carnival #139 contains the same imaginative creativity that is characteristic of his beautiful images and sensitive commentary on travel, people, culture and our natural world.

This edition's theme is a take-off on National Public Radio and, fittingly, begins with an award-winning post from NPR commentator, Julie Zickefoose.  Along with her, you will find "best story awards" presented to some of my all-time blogging favorites and I am honored to find myself among them with the award presented below.

Best in Conservation

Sandhill Crane photo by Charlie Corbell

An Intimate View of Family Life

"Noted watercolor artist, writer, photographer and outspoken crane conservationist Vickie Henderson was the reader's favorite in Conservation with her in-depth reporting and intimate look at Sandhill crane behavior and her public opposition to Tennessee's proposal to hunt the bird along its fly-away.  Vickie reports that a Sandhill Crane hunt proposal in Tennessee is now in its final stages and inviting public comment.   She offers that if the hunt proposal is passed, Tennessee will be the first state in US history to initiate a hunting season for Sandhill Cranes in the east and reveals that other states are lined up to follow.  Vickie is the author and illustrator of The Craniac Kids - Whooping Crane Activity Book.  She is currently the Featured Bird Blogger of the Week at Birding"

Friday, November 26, 2010

Featured Blogger of the Week at

Dawn Fine, one of the most energetic and friendly personalities found in the nature blogging community, is also a member of the international blogging team found at  When she approached me recently about being featured as the Blogger of the Week for this blog, I was both honored and delighted.
Dawn's post was published today and I am awed with the talent she displays in this beautiful presentation.  The post highlights my art and photography, as well as features some of the important conservation issues that impassion my efforts.  
Visit this informative, internationally authored blog including more than ten expert birders from around the world, with Kenn Kaufman (US); Gunnar Engblom (Peru), Susan Myers (Australia), Dan Forbes (Austria) and Tom McKinney (UK), to name a few.

Thank you, Dawn, for this beautifully presented feature!  Click here to view Dawn's Featured Blogger of the Week at BirdingBlogs.

Thanks also to Dawn's energy, my blog is featured in the Nov. 26th issue of the cyber paper, The birds-and-the-bees Daily.  Scroll down to the section entitled:  "Art and Entertainment".  Did I mention that Dawn is a fun blogging friend to know?  She's full of surprises!

Visit Dawn at Dawn's Bloggy Blog.  For another fun sampling of Dawn's delightful personality and energy, visit her featured blogger interview on the Nature Blog Network's blog.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Greater Sandhill Cranes--An Intimate View of Family Life

"Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins,
as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through
successive stages of beautiful to values as yet
uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies,
I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
            --Aldo Leopold--A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There            
When Aldo Leopold was writing these words in the 1940's, he, as well as other leading biologists across the continent, thought Sandhill cranes would vanish along with Whooping Cranes.  "At this pivotal time, the crane's capacity to inspire human caring and action made a crucial difference to the species' future, as did the commitment of a few individuals....Sandhill populations recovered because of changes both in human behavior and crane behavior."  (Archibald and Harris in the introduction to On Ancient Wings by Michael Forsberg.)

The conservation of wetlands, the occurrence of adjacent agricultural waste grain fields, and stringent hunting restrictions were all key to this recovery.
Sandhill cranes are tenacious about their migration path and their stop-over sites.  But this behavior is known to change over time with the influence of human activity. Traditionally in the east, sandhill cranes migrated from breeding grounds in Wisconsin to wintering grounds in south Georgia and Florida.  But in recent years the planting of corn at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge, intended to attract and support hunted water fowl, also attracted sandhill cranes.  Consequently, a quarter of the eastern migrating population has wintered in east Tennessee in recent years.
Sandhill cranes staging in waste grain fields adjacent to the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge in 2004.

It is this spectacle of staging and wintering-over Sandhill cranes, along with the reintroduction of the endangered Whooping crane, that has attracted and delighted thousands of wildlife viewers to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in the past nineteen years. In fact, the wildlife viewing festival that resulted, The Cherokee Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Days, was named to the Top Twenty Events list in 2002 by the Southeast Tourism Society.
In this post, with the generous permission of my friend, Charlie Corbeil, naturalist and talented photographer from Brevard County, Florida, you are seeing intimate views of a Sandhill crane family.  The large gathering of cranes described above is made up of family units consisting of a pair of crane parents and usually one, sometimes two, juveniles--juveniles that have rapidly grown to nearly the size of their parents in a few short months, fledged just in time to migrate, and still retain their peeping chick voices. In fact, the cries of a juvenile sandhill crane separated from parents during migration can move an observer to tears.     

Sandhill cranes mate for life.  Young are taught their migration route by their parents and remain with their parents until the next breeding season.  It is in this family unit that young are protected, learn to find food and learn to select safe roosting sites in wetland shallows.  Here is where juveniles are socialized and learn important survival skills, including those needed for pair bonding and reproduction.  

In the beautiful slide show below, you will enjoy a rare close-up view of a sandhill crane family shortly after their two chicks hatch.  Sandhill cranes are attentive parents.  As you view the images, you will find their gentleness heart-warming, their beauty and elegance "beyond the reach of words."  
A special thank you to Charlie Corbeil for sharing his beautiful photography.

In North America there are only two true cranes--Sandhill cranes and Whooping Cranes.  In eastern North America, we enjoy the eastern population of the Greater Sandhill Crane, a subspecies of Sandhill cranes, and in recent years, the Whooping Crane, a reintroduced population whose arrival marked the first wild migration of Whooping cranes in the east in over a century.

A Sandhill Crane Hunt Proposal in Tennessee is now in its final stages and inviting public comment.  Take a moment to visit the links provided below and let the TN Wildlife Resources Commission know you DON'T want a sandhill crane hunt in Tennessee.  If the Commission passes this hunt proposal, Tennessee will be the first state in US history to initiate a hunting season for Sandhill cranes in the east (Atlantic/Mississippi Flyways).  Other states are lined up to follow (KY, MN, WI).
Scroll to the bottom of this page, Sandhill Crane Hunt Proposalto find TWRA's comment link.  Below I have listed some reasons that support opposition to this hunt.  Please add your own.

Reasons to oppose this hunt include but are not limited to: 
  • Sandhill cranes are a valuable wildlife watching attraction in TN.  Initiating a hunt will severely interfere with the pleasure of wildlife watchers.   
  • Hunting sandhill cranes will damage the relationships between the rapidly growing numbers of wildlife watchers in TN and the TN Wildlife Resources Agency.
  • Initiating a hunt on a species that has never been hunted in the east is a serious consideration and requires a longer period of investigation and public input than has been allowed.
  • Initiating this hunt will add an additional danger to rare Whooping cranes that have been reintroduced in the east.  
  • Size estimates for this population are not standardized or consistently measured making the assumptions supporting this hunt inadequate.  
  • Human use and consumption of wetland habitat used by this population is inadequately investigated.    
  • The nine depredation permits issues in TN over the past three years is an inadequate number to support hunting based on nuisance or population management
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission will make the final decision.  The members of this commission  can be found here; email addresses and fax numbers are provided.

To read more about why this hunt is a bad idea visit:

Also visit the TN Ornithological Society's information and position on the proposed sandhill crane hunt and their well articulated letter to the Commission

Clink this link to find out what's happening in Kentucky 

Blog posts around the continent opposing the hunting of cranes in Tennessee:  
The Birder's Report:  Help Stop the Sandhill Crane Hunt
Stephen Lyn Bales, author of Ghost Birds, on Sandhill Cranes in Tennessee.
Gary Louck of Greenback, TN--Cranes in Peril

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ghost Birds--A Must-Read for Bird Lovers and Conservationists

What an incredible story Stephen Lyn Bales weaves in his latest book, Ghost Birds.  Not just a book about the ivory-billed woodpecker, though that would be quite enough, it is the story of conservation’s beginnings in a rapidly changing, war-torn world, a time when sound recordings, movies, and still photography were barely versatile enough to be used “in the field” and field observations were new and uncharted territory.  

James Tanner was not only the man who most intimately knew the ivory-billed woodpecker, he was a pioneer in the emerging field of ecology while prevailing ornithological practices were still dominated by shooting birds and collecting specimens.  No one had ever before watched a live bird interact in its natural habitat and recorded that behavior for scientific understanding
With his expert storytelling skills, Bales sets a vivid stage for his reader, giving not only the scene’s sensory detail, but the deeper context of history and prevailing mood of the time.  As readers, we get to effortlessly accompany James Tanner into the swamps, a young biologist facing an enormous challenge—learn everything there is to know about ivory-billed woodpeckers. 

Bales’ characters are bigger than life, and despite his work being based on reams of research, the story reads like a skillfully crafted suspense novel.  We see and experience Tanner’s celebrations, his disappointments, and his worries.  And through Tanner’s field notes, we experience the ivory-billed woodpecker—an incredible experience that is simultaneously heart-rending,
An excerpt from Ghost Birds:  “The adult ivory-bills spent considerable time near the nest, the male working to create a new hole in a live oak about one hundred yards away.  The female also worked on a hole high in a striped oak.  The pair interacted, with Jim noting how the “male lit below the female, climbed up past her, gave the toodle-toodle-toodle call.  They touched bills twice.”  At times their nestling could be seen with its head completely out of the nest hole, watching the scene that unfolded around him.”

At the same time we enjoy this tender observation, we are reminded of the alarming state of the ivory-bill’s habitat--a “bastion, a lost world”, one of the largest pieces of old timber left in the south, an island surrounded by men with saws.  It is impossible to read this story without feeling loss, without considering the lessons the story presents, and without contemplating the current state of our conservation practices and the time it takes to affect change.

A must-read for anyone who loves birds and champions conservation, Ghost Birds is a poignant journey back in time--a story about a changing field, a story about a man and a bird, a saga about survival that the world will not soon forget.     

Photo:  Author Stephen Lyn Bales with Nancy, the late James Tanner's wife.  

Links and resources:
Find Stephen Lyn Bales at Nature Calling.
Ghost Birds at Amazon
Ghost Birds at UT Press
Prelude to Ghost Birds:  Bales in the Smithsonian Magazine on newly discovered 1938 Ivory-bill images.
More about Stephen Lyn Bales on this blog
This review can also be found at Amazon

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sandhill Crane Hunting in Tennessee? Multiple Factors Say, NO

"The cranes were spectacular--thousands and thousands of them, on the shore, on distant sandbars, in flight behind me and in front of me, soaring in from all directions, filling the air with their wonderful calls." 
Sketchbook journal--Vickie Henderson, Feb 5, 2000, Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Tennessee
This was my initial description of the spectacle of staging sandhill cranes at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge in TN, an awe-inspiring experience that launched me into a ten-year journey that has been dedicated to experiencing wildlife in wild places and sharing the joy of that experience through art.

It was at this refuge, during this sandhill crane migration and the Cherokee Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Days, a joint venture between members of the TN Ornithological Society (TOS) and the TN Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), that I experienced my first wild sightings of three magnificent birds, the Greater Sandhill Crane, Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle, all in one day.  At this event I also learned about TWRA's Golden Eagle hacking project, and the upcoming ultralight-led migration project that has, since that time, successfully re-introduced migrating Whooping Cranes to the east.

Later that year, in June of 2000, I drove from Tennessee to Wyoming to join TWRA's Golden Eagle hacking project's climbing crew in the collection of golden eaglets to be transported back to Tennessee.  (See "hacking" explanation at end of post.)

Preparation for my cross-country journey included a thirty-minute orientation meeting with TWRA's Bruce Anderson, head of the project, at his regional office in Crossville, TN.  This was the extent of what we knew about each other before I joined the TWRA team in Gillette, WY as a volunteer, my first ever endeavor of this kind.  

Once there, in the course of four packed days of off-road driving, the collection of thirteen eaglets from nests using ropes and ascenders (leaving one eaglet in the nest for parents to raise), and the feeding of eaglets in the evenings, I developed an enormous regard and respect for the wildlife officers involved in this project.  In that compact amount of time, I was exposed to a deep reverence for wildlife, a dedicated work ethic, a sound devotion to conservation, militant "tree hugger" attitudes directed toward the project team, and, yes, to hunting.  The brief hunting encounter involved the sacrifice of a rabbit to add fresh meat to the young eaglets' diet, otherwise consisting of frozen mice transported from TN.  

All of the members of this wildlife team, with the exception of one other volunteer, were employees of TWRA.  All, with the exception of yours truly, were hunters.  On a very personal level, this experience forever opened my mind and heightened my regard for the best of those individuals we term "hunters".  Those of us who watch wildlife and choose not to hunt have something infinitely valuable in common with these hunters--we all revere wildlife and want to save the wild places they inhabit.

Of all the reasons I don't want to see a sandhill crane hunt in Tennessee, this one ranks high among them. Sandhill cranes have done more to bring hunters and wildlife watchers together in TN than all other species combined, and the festival that celebrated their presence has been responsible for inspiring and educating thousands of people about wildlife projects in Tennessee.  The spectacle and delight of staging sandhill cranes formed the center-piece that provided opportunity to educate, adding numbers to our environmental forces, bringing revenue into our state, and inspiring individuals like me to get involved.
And what Tennessee is doing to help wildlife and the environment is exciting and something to be celebrated.  Since 2003, more than 350,000 acres have been protected across Tennessee, and TWRA is the steward of all these lands and its wildlife inhabitants.

Regarding these land transactions, TN's Environment and Conservation Commissioner, Jim Fyke, in his message in the current issue of the TN Conservationist, credits Governor Phil Bredesen for his invaluable leadership in these conservation efforts and says the following:  "Governor Bredesen knew preserving our state's most special habitats and natural features today was a long-term investment in the quality of life for all Tennesseans.  He realized economic vitality and our natural resources are directly linked, especially in Tennessee.  Thoughtful conservation investment in these resources helps promote heritage tourism and sustainable outdoor recreation activities with meaningful future returns."

If we need to assign economic value to the Greater Sandhill Crane's sheltered presence in Tennessee in order to deter the current effort to hunt them, there it is.  But, before I continue with the economic factors, lets look at cranes themselves, their Whooping crane cousins, and some complex factors that indicate that hunting cranes would be an unwise decision--a decision, by the way, that is not made by TWRA, but by a commission of Tennessee citizens who are relying on our voices to help them determine the outcome of this issue.          

Sandhill Crane Ecology
The eastern population of Greater Sandhill Cranes has come back from the brink of extinction from only 25 breeding pairs remaining in Wisconsin in the 1930's to more than 50,000 now migrating through the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.  I am proud that Tennessee has been a part of this success story through the conservation of wetlands and refuge crop plantings that helped sustain these struggling cranes, as well as, supported wintering waterfowl and other migrating species.

It is here that I want to mention that the numbers often quoted for sandhill crane populations, "500-600,000 sandhill cranes" are referencing sandhill crane populations in the central flyway, the majority of which are the Lesser Sandhill Crane, a separate and distinct sub-species of sandhill crane.  The only sandhill cranes present in the state of Tennessee are members of the eastern population of Greater Sandhill Cranes.   

Sandhill cranes are family-oriented birds, mating for life, remaining in family groups throughout the breeding season and during migration.  Though lost mates are eventually replaced, the surviving partner in the pair is known to grieve the loss.  Juveniles separated from parents during migration are less likely to survive, having lost both protection and assistance in finding food.  Though sandhill families migrate in flocks, they do not mingle or adopt lost juveniles, but rather, establish small territories within a flock's feeding ground and defend their family's territory against intrusion.  

A sandhill crane's first breeding season begins at two to seven years of age, averaging 4.3 years of age, with the laying of two eggs, and more often with only one colt surviving.  Though sandhill cranes are typically long-lived, this makes for a slow and low reproductive replacement rate.  

Historically our country has relied heavily on population numbers to determine the health of a species without sufficient consideration of species' ecology and the impact of human use and consumption of vital habitat.  Sandhill cranes rely on wetlands for their survival. They must roost in shallow water as a protection from predators.          

The United States Environmental Protection Agency presents these facts about the status and trends of US wetlands:   The lower 48 states contained an estimated 105.5 million acres of wetlands in 1997, an area about the size of California.  Between 1986 and 1997, an estimated 58,500 acres of wetlands were lost each year in the conterminous United States.  [This period followed the implementation of wetland protection measures. Until another study is released, the implication is that this trend continues.]  Loss of wetlands today involve more than physical loss due to drainage and development, but other factors that are more difficult to measure.  Other threats include chemical contamination, excess nutrients, and sediment from air and water.  Global climate change could affect wetlands through increased air temperature; shifts in precipitation; increased frequency of storms, droughts, and floods; increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration; and sea level rise.  All of these impacts could affect species composition and wetland functions.

We do not know how these factors will affect this population of Greater Sandhill Cranes.

Whooping Cranes 
In the fall of 2001, Operation Migration conducted the first-ever ultralight-led migration with endangered Whooping cranes, leading them from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.  In the spring these juveniles returned to their fledging grounds unassisted by humans, representing the first Whooping cranes to fly in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways in over a century.  As a result of this project, involving the cooperation of two national governments, and many state and private organizations, we now have 96 Whooping cranes migrating in the east, a population that has been introduced to help safeguard the remaining wild Whooping crane population that migrates from breeding grounds in Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Texas.  This original wild population suffered a loss of 10% in their 2009 wintering season, attributable to insufficient food supply and starvation caused by restricted fresh water inflows from the Guadalupe River.  A law suit against Texas water regulators has been filed by U.S. environmentalists.  

When Whooping Cranes were re-introduced in the east, they were designated as a "nonessential experimental population" by the USFWS, essentially meaning that if a Whooping Crane is accidentally injured or killed during a lawful act, the person committing the act cannot be prosecuted. This designation was necessary to reach agreement with all the states affected by the presence of re-introduced, migrating Whooping cranes.  In addition, the flyway states are partners in this endeavor and these partnerships made, and still make, the Whooping crane reintroduction possible.  

Having said that, Tennessee represents the midway point of the eastern Whooping Crane's migration from Wisconsin to Florida, a journey through a migration corridor that acts as a funnel for migrating cranes.  The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is a major staging area for this population of whoopers, as well as, sandhill cranes.  These re-introduced Whooping Cranes represent an investment of millions of dollars and ten years of concerted effort on the part of public and private organizations and many thousands of supporters in an effort to help safeguard an endangered species against extinction.    

Though I am confident that the USFWS and TWRA would do everything possible to educate potential hunters should this proposal go forward, this education would not eliminate the risk of bad aim or a strayed shot, nor would it eliminate the possibility of human error in identification.  The Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes of the Hiwassee refuge and surrounding area frequently mingle; they feed together and they come and go together.  In poor light, in the sun's glare, while looking skyward at distant birds in flight, the most experienced of us cannot easily distinguish them in an instant.  
Greater sandhill cranes and four Whooping cranes mingle while feeding at the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge on an overcast day.  The white and cinnamon Whooping crane in the upper left is a juvenile.
This brings me back to the economic issues.
The proposal to hunt sandhill cranes in Tennessee has reached this level, the level of final commission decision, because a small group of organized hunters knew the approval system well enough to actively pursue it.  The hunt, if approved, will serve a small group of special interests, not the majority of the citizens in Tennessee, and take valuable time and money from other wildlife management projects.  Between 2008 and 2010 only nine sandhill depredation permits were requested in TN and granted by the USFWS, indicating that hunting as a management tool is currently a weak argument for this hunt.  Public relations and funding dollars, on the other hand, are enormous arguments for opposing the hunt.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing TWRA's Executive Director, Ed Carter, speak at a Tennessee for Wilderness Planning meeting in LaFollette, TN.  In that talk, he addressed the issue of funding for the agency, which is currently based on the sales of licenses and taxes on hunting paraphernalia.  Currently, a hunting license may be purchased by a hunter and that revenue will be matched by the federal government to support the agency.  By contrast, if a non-hunter purchases a license and checks the non-hunter box on the application, no matching funds are received by the state.  There is something very wrong with this picture. Our federal and state laws and regulations are not keeping pace with the rapid increase in wildlife-watching participation.

According to a USFWS survey, from 1996 to 2006, wildlife watching by TN residents increased by 81%, while hunting declined by 25%; from 2001-2005 spending by resident hunters was down 10%, while spending by wildlife watchers was up 112%.  And among the 2.8 million residents and non-residents who participated in wildlife related activities in Tennessee in 2006, 84% were wildlife watching and only 12% were hunting.  (See the resource links below to find the same information for your state.)

The trend is clear, but wildlife-watching dollars are not being funneled to the agency responsible for managing the places wildlife watchers enjoy.  And the problem is not just here in Tennessee, but it is true in every state in the USA.  We, as wildlife watchers and hunters, need to support our state wildlife management organizations by lobbying to change the laws that govern their funding.  Besides believing that it is in my state's best interest to deny the approval of a sandhill crane hunt, I also believe it is in the best interest of every state in the flyway.  Tennessee has an opportunity to set a precedent here.  And as one of its concerned citizens, I would like to see that precedent set in favor of harmony, rather than hunting, and instead, focus on pro-active planning and thoughtful harnessing of the growing numbers of wildlife watchers in our state.  We need all of their energy to help change antiquated laws so that our wildlife management programs can go forward with sufficient funding.

And to all wildlife watchers who enjoy our state, the time is now to send your opinion on the proposed sandhill crane hunt in TN to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission.  Every letter makes a difference.

Photo credits:  Photo of the author holding a golden eaglet in Wyoming taken by Bruce Anderson.

Hacking:  Hacking is a means of re-establishing an extirpated population of raptors and involves placing a juvenile raptor in an enclosure and feeding it until it is ready to fledge or take its first flight.  Young raptors are known to return to the place where they initially fledge to establish their own nesting territory.  This is the method that has been used throughout the USA to re-establish bald eagle and peregrin falcon populations.
Tree Hugger:  a derogatory slang expression for an environmentalist or someone who is trying to save wildlife

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tracking the Birds of Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge--TN Conservationist Magazine

The November/December issue of the Tennessee Conservationist magazine is now in the hands of subscribers and it includes my article on bird banding--Tracking the Birds of Seven Island Wildlife Refuge.  What a delight to see this article in print, a culmination of over a year of research, co-ordination, and the best part--participation in bird banding at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge.

Below, you can read the introduction to the article which features information about how the refuge is helping grassland birds, and how banding is not only telling us about the birds on the refuge, but contributing to a wider knowledge of bird populations.

In the pre-dawn darkness, a cluster of small glowing head lamps slowly fans out in all directions on a river peninsula in east Knox County, TN.  Field Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings sing as mist nets are erected prior to the day's first light.  In July this occurs around 5:30 a.m., the rising sun bathing the fields in rose gold just as the first net-run takes place at 6:40.  When there is no breeze stirring or cloud cover, banding team members expect to face rising heat and humidity as the morning progresses.

Winter banding sessions call for mittens, caps, layered clothing, hot drinks and chemical hand warmers for comfort, and even then, finger tips numb before the first bird is processed.  Yet, none of these discomforts dampen the enthusiastic spirit of banding activities conducted year-round at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge (SIWR).

Established through the vision and generosity of the Pete Claussen family through their Seven Islands Foundation, SIWR is a 360-acre nature preserve and wildlife refuge located on the Kelly Bend peninsula of the French Broad River.  Bordering three miles of the river, the refuge's mission includes the restoration of native warm-season grasses, the enhancement of riparian and wetland areas and habitat diversification for the benefit of wildlife species, all under the watchful planning and direction of natural resource advocate and land manager, Wayne Schacher.  In addition to light recreational activity for the public, including nature trails and a small boat ramp for kayaks and canoes, the refuge offers educational and research opportunities. Partnering with members of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society to conduct bird banding studies is just one of the many on-going research activities taking place on the refuge.
To read the entire article, visit the TN Conservationist website (link below) and subscribe to the magazine or contact the editor, Louise Zepp, to obtain a copy.  The award-winning magazine is funded entirely by subscriptions and is relatively inexpensive to purchase.  Published six times a year, it brings news about natural and cultural conservation efforts in Tennessee, including descriptions of parks and preserves people can visit in Tennessee.
A special thank you to Louise Zepp, TN Conservationist editor, and to bird-banding team members, Mark Armstrong, Wayne Schacher and Billie Cantwell for their assistance in making this article possible.

TN Conservationist Magazine
More about the TN Conservationist and about bird-banding at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge in this blog.  You may also want to visit the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge website.

A visit with birds at Dockweiler Beach, CA
The endangered El Segundo blue butterfly
A review of Ghost Birds, by Stephen Lyn Bales
The proposed sandhill crane hunt in Tennessee

Monday, November 8, 2010

Long-billed Curlew at El Matador Beach--Malibu, CA

Having lived in the "south" most of my life (south meaning the eastern south) and being accustomed to a more leisurely pace, a visit to Los Angeles, California, can feel like a visit to a foreign country.  Driving the LA freeways, navigating city streets even, for me rivals learning a foreign language at a high-speed pace with only a few seconds to grasp it.   
But also rivaling any wonder I've experienced in nature is the absolute grandeur of the western coastline along the Pacific Coast Highway.  The ruggedness of the rock cliff formations, the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the impressive panoramic views of the undulating California coastline on one side, and stark canyon walls on the other, present a world that envelops me in wonder every time I see it.  Add to this, the discovery of a life bird foraging among the rock formations and you have what makes for a perfect moment in nature.   (Click on the above image to enlarge and notice the people standing in the shadow of the large boulder.  This gives you a relative idea of the height of my position while taking the photograph just before my climb down.)
Located on the west end of Malibu, El Matador is one of three beaches located in the Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach, an area of cove or cliff-foot strands, also known as "pocket beaches" because of their isolated accessibility.
That isolation is largely due to the steep decent required to gain beach access, made possible only by a series of paths and stairways that enable you to weave your way down the cliff wall to the shore.      
And every landing is worthy of pause, a chance to take in a whole new perspective on a breath-taking view. 
Below, you see a cluster of rock formations along the shore.  It was at this level that I noticed the movement of shorebirds among the rocks, one of them standing out as larger and more colorful.
After progressing a couple of levels closer, I knew I had found a treasure, an unfamiliar bird with intriguing features.

Breeding in grasslands and wet meadows in the central United States and south-central Canada, the Long-billed Curlew, a life bird for me, winters along the coast of California and south to Mexico.  It uses that long decurved bill to probe deep into mud and sand, following the burrows of fiddler crabs, shrimp, crayfish and other crustaceans, and bringing them up to the surface to consume.   On it's grassland breeding grounds, it uses this same technique to forage earthworm burrows.
Considered "highly imperiled" by the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan because of declines and threats to both breeding and wintering grounds, while not foraging this bird walks with an erect, slightly head back posture giving it a proud appearance as it travels the mud flats.

At a height of 23" and a wing span of 35" it also made a graceful departure.  Slow, deliberate flaps from long cinnamon wings lifted it over the boulder-strewn, frothy tidal waters with ease.    

One of those unexpected treasured moments with nature.

Related Links and Resources:

Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach and El Matador State Beach
Cornell on the Long-billed Curlew

Visit blog carnival, I and the Bird  #138, at Wanderin' Weeta's where you'll find this post and others that show the many ways people enjoy birds in nature.

Linked to Bird Photography Weekly # 115 to promote the conservation of our world's birds.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Loggerhead Sea Turtle

I loved creating this painting.  It pulled me into incredible memories and even closer to an ancient vertebrate that has always stirred my intrigue.  
While visiting Brevard County, FL in June, I had the very special privilege of participating in two guided turtle walks to witness female loggerheads laying their eggs at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.  On one of these occasions I joined scout and Master Naturalist, Vince Lamb, as his 'assistant' in the search for nesting turtles coming ashore, an endeavor that was exceptionally beautiful in the light of a full moon. The roll of scout, in this case, is to spot turtles, alert leaders, and signal when it is safe for the group to observe.  While a female turtle is easily disturbed and may abandon her nesting efforts prior to egg-laying, once this activity begins, she is driven by biological influences that compel her to complete the task.
My good fortune also included pre-dawn beach walks with nature photographer, Jim Angy, who has lived on these Brevard County beaches and followed the lives of turtles all his life.  These walks enabled Jim to show me fresh tracks and nests of both Loggerhead and Green turtles before they were disturbed by daily activities, as well as, introduce me to a number of other wildlife that inhabit these sandy shores.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle tracks, leading to the nest and back to the ocean.

On one of these mornings we found a place where both a Loggerhead and a Green Sea Turtle had nested during the night, with one turtle's nest dig overlapping and disturbing the nest of the other.  The result was several dislodged eggs, some of which had broken and were already being fed upon by crabs.  
Female Loggerheads reach sexual maturity at approximately 30 years of age and return to their natal beaches to breed and nest once every two to four years.  Nests contain from 70-150 ping-pong ball sized eggs, and an average of four nests are made divided by two-week intervals.  Hatchlings emerge from the nests in July-October, 45-60 days after the eggs are laid, with both nesting and hatching occurring mostly at night.
Jim Angy at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, sharing some of his knowledge about sea turtle nesting behavior evidenced by the tracks and sand disturbance they leave behind.

To give you an even deeper sense of wonder about these ancient creatures, imagine the hatchling's journey from nest to sea--a tiny being with a walnut-sized shell scrambling upward, among hundreds of other thrashing flippers, to reach the sand's surface and find the ocean, guided only by the light of an unobstructed sky for orientation.  This directional decision is the difference between life or certain death. Blair Witherington's fascinating book, Sea Turtles, An Extraordinary Natural History of Some Uncommon Turtles, gives a poetic description of this journey along with many intriguing facts and observations about our world's sea turtles.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles have been steadily declining and were federally listed as Threatened in 1978.  Within the United States, they nest principally in Florida and 25% of these nests are found within the 20.5 miles of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge.  The good news is Loggerhead nests increased during the 2010 nesting season, numbering 13,357 at the refuge, an increase of over 3000 from last year. Given the oceanic events of the past season, it is truly gratifying to hear some good news for a change.

Links and Resources:
A special "thank you" to Marge Bell of Space Coast Beach Buzz for arranging my turtle walks and the many outings I enjoyed with her talented naturalist friends
For more details about how this painting was created visit Painting a Loggerhead Sea Turtle--Part II
Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge and Sea Turtle Nesting Update
Blair Witherington's Sea Turtles, An Extraordinary Natural History of Some Uncommon Turtles
Jim Angy Photography
Vince Lamb
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Me and Denali--2012

Me and Denali--2012
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham