Sunday, April 20, 2014

Watching the morning? Count me in

David Horst  snadhill7@gmail.com

TOWN OF HORTONIA — The annual International Crane Foundation Midwest Crane Count is a special morning for me, one I’ve shared with others only a couple of times.
This year’s count was April 12. With me — next to the abandoned house and weather-worn barn barn where I’ve done my counts for more than a dozen years — were Dr. Kevin and Candice Mortara and Kim Krzycki of Appleton and Jim O’Rourke of Green Bay. They are all people I’ve met through the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddles.
I have to say that standing outside for two hours early on a spring morning is not everybody’s cup of cold tea. To participate in the crane count, you must be at your assigned site by 5:30 a.m. and stay until 7:30 a.m. More than 2,000 volunteer counters at sites across six states are sharing your discomfort.
I like it because it is the one day of the year that I force myself to sit quietly and watch the morning come.
To be accurate, we started by listening to the morning come. At 5:30 a.m. in mid-April, it’s still dark out.
A robin’s melody, a mourning dove’s coo, a turkey’s gobble, a mallard’s cackle, a great horned owl’s who-who-whooo, were all hanging in the morning darkness — as they do every spring morning — waiting for ears to hear them. This morning, ours did.
Kevin Mortara, used to an oncologist’s demanding schedule, was particularly taken with watching the morning’s ambient light come up. It happens quite quickly. We went from finding our way with flashlights to dim shadows on the horizon to usable light in minutes — too subtle a change for a man wearing a stethoscope to take note of most mornings.
It wasn’t until 5:51 a.m. that we heard the first sandhill cranes trumpeting. The calls came from two directions so we tallied two on our ICF list, though their certainly were more to be verified if we could find them in the swampy woods.
It would take until 6:38 a.m. for us to see our first cranes, but it was quite a sighting. A pair flew in from the woods and landed in the hay field we were observing. At four feet tall with a bright red cap, they make a striking image.
ICF wants to know if this is just two cranes or a mating pair. You might confirm that by hearing them join in a unison call or seeing them doing a mating dance. Kevin was at the spotting scope when one mounted the other. Check — mating pair.
In between crane sightings, we were entertained by three tom turkeys displaying for about 20 hens. Spring is in the air.
Six minutes after the first, a second pair of sandhills flew in. Over the next 10 minutes, the first pair left, and five more cranes appeared.
About 7:03 a.m. I was at the scope when I saw something trotting along the edge of the woods. Focus adjusted, I could clearly see a coyote on the move toward two of our cranes. So did they, and they flew off.
I had heard coyotes here before, but never spotted one. I was pretty charged up by that. Most of my companions were starting to get restless with the slow pace and chilling wind of my special morning.
By 7:09 a.m., we have nine cranes on the ground and our count is up to 16, seen or heard. Our people count still engaged in observation is down to two.
We would end the day having seen 15 cranes (and heard, officially, three more), 23 turkeys, eight or so deer, one osprey carrying a fish and one quick onset of morning light.
That adds up to a good morning in my ledger.
—David Horst’s nature column appears here regularly. Email him or read past columns at uponthesandhill.blogspot.com.
TOWN OF HORTONIA — The annual International Crane Foundation Midwest Crane Count is a special morning for me, one I’ve shared with others only a couple of times.
This year’s count was April 12. With me — next to the abandoned house and weather-worn barn barn where I’ve done my counts for more than a dozen years — were Dr. Kevin and Candice Mortara and Kim Krzycki of Appleton and Jim O’Rourke of Green Bay. They are all people I’ve met through the Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Paddles.
I have to say that standing outside for two hours early on a spring morning is not everybody’s cup of cold tea. To participate in the crane count, you must be at your assigned site by 5:30 a.m. and stay until 7:30 a.m. More than 2,000 volunteer counters at sites across six states are sharing your discomfort.
I like it because it is the one day of the year that I force myself to sit quietly and watch the morning come.
To be accurate, we started by listening to the morning come. At 5:30 a.m. in mid-April, it’s still dark out.
A robin’s melody, a mourning dove’s coo, a turkey’s gobble, a mallard’s cackle, a great horned owl’s who-who-whooo, were all hanging in the morning darkness — as they do every spring morning — waiting for ears to hear them. This morning, ours did.
Kevin Mortara, used to an oncologist’s demanding schedule, was particularly taken with watching the morning’s ambient light come up. It happens quite quickly. We went from finding our way with flashlights to dim shadows on the horizon to usable light in minutes — too subtle a change for a man wearing a stethoscope to take note of most mornings.
It wasn’t until 5:51 a.m. that we heard the first sandhill cranes trumpeting. The calls came from two directions so we tallied two on our ICF list, though their certainly were more to be verified if we could find them in the swampy woods.
It would take until 6:38 a.m. for us to see our first cranes, but it was quite a sighting. A pair flew in from the woods and landed in the hay field we were observing. At four feet tall with a bright red cap, they make a striking image.
ICF wants to know if this is just two cranes or a mating pair. You might confirm that by hearing them join in a unison call or seeing them doing a mating dance. Kevin was at the spotting scope when one mounted the other. Check — mating pair.
In between crane sightings, we were entertained by three tom turkeys displaying for about 20 hens. Spring is in the air.
Six minutes after the first, a second pair of sandhills flew in. Over the next 10 minutes, the first pair left, and five more cranes appeared.
About 7:03 a.m. I was at the scope when I saw something trotting along the edge of the woods. Focus adjusted, I could clearly see a coyote on the move toward two of our cranes. So did they, and they flew off.
I had heard coyotes here before, but never spotted one. I was pretty charged up by that. Most of my companions were starting to get restless with the slow pace and chilling wind of my special morning.
By 7:09 a.m., we have nine cranes on the ground and our count is up to 16, seen or heard. Our people count still engaged in observation is down to two.
We would end the day having seen 15 cranes (and heard, officially, three more), 23 turkeys, eight or so deer, one osprey carrying a fish and one quick onset of morning light.
That adds up to a good morning in my ledger.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

We're not out of the woods yet

By David Horst  sandhill7@gmail.com

A beautiful moonset makes giving up the woods a little easier.
David Horst photo
I was beginning to wonder if we had taken a serious hit in nature sightings.

We had moved our hobby farm from a rolling oak-hickory woods to 18 acres of hayfield. We weren’t seeing the deer under the bird feeders. We weren’t being treated to the daily parade of turkeys through the backyard.

I was starting to miss the woods in a big way.

Then came spring.

While it has not been reflected on the thermometer, spring is here officially and, apparently, in the hearts and instincts of our wildlife.

The weekend before the March 20 change of seasons, we first heard and the spotted — high up in the sky — the return of the sandhill cranes.

Cranes carry considerable importance for us. We have called our place Sandhill Llama Farm since we fenced in a pasture in the Town of Hortonia 19 years ago.

The name paid tribute to the sandhill cranes feeding in the field across the road, the sandy hill on which we built our house and my fondness for Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” Our new soil is clay, so our very name was riding on the presence of the big birds.

They arrived and stayed. Peering through our spotting scope into a neighbor’s field I saw a pair of sandhills that seemed suspiciously like a mated pair. After watching for only a short time, I saw them going into their mating dance. Facing each other, they jump into the air with wings and legs extended. Pair confirmed.

Then this past weekend, cranes began to land in our field. First one, then three and a promise of more to come. We no longer have to rely on a neighbor’s land to bring us cranes and crane music in the mornings.

The calendar has never been my measure of spring. For me, the season only arrives when I’ve heard the trill of a red-winged blackbird. Walking through our hayfield on the very day, spring called out from the fence line. The red-wings have provided continual background music ever since.

There are still a few long-held nature traditions to get past. Will the warmer weather bring the grosbeaks, orioles, scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings that brought color to the dull morning?

The woods would be filling with spring ephemeral wildflowers before long. We’ll be hunting the wooded areas along the edges of our new property for the marsh marigolds, anemone, trillium and wild violets that were such a welcome part of spring,

Nature always brings surprises so we are sure to find new delights in this new environment. We now have a creek, crop fields and longer sight lines than we’re used to.

Ahhh, the sight lines. There was something we couldn’t see beyond the forest for the trees. We have traded the woods for spectacular sunsets nearly on a daily basis. If that’s not enough, when the moon is full, we’re treated to beautiful moonsets.

That’s the lesson. Wherever you go, if you are aware, nature will find you.



Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Snowshoeing just requires that you put one foot in front of the other

Abbie, Mat and Suzie embrace the cold
By David Horst  sandhill7@gmail.com

Blame it on weather or maturity, but we hadn't explored the terrain surrounding our new Sandhill Llama Farm in the way we typically have other places where we've dropped roots in the past.

For one thing, we can see all of the 18 acres from the house. We know where to watch the deer pop through the fence line or the turkeys march along the edge of the hay field.

Motivated by recaptured youth, we patrolled the perimeter on show shoes in December's single-digit temperatures. The youth came in the form of two 20-something nephews who spent the Christmas holiday with us.

In our yards, mow is less

By David Horst  sandhill7@gmail.com

OSHKOSH — How did tradition, professional consensus and neighborhood peer pressure arrive at the unsustainable conclusion that we should surround our homes with a monoculture of cool season grasses?

Lawn. It covers 92 percent of our suburbs. We keep it alive in this unnatural environment by soaking it with purified water and burning fossils fuels to cut back the growth we have stimulated.

Prof. Doug Tallamy, who chairs the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, suggested a standard for evaluating our yards a bit more thoughtful than making everything the same. How about we choose plants based on how many species of caterpillars they support?