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Of Geraniums and Bluebirds and Men in Whooping Crane Suits

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Somehow we managed to skip winter this year. It’s not just that we’ve had such a mild season; it’s more a matter of color and light.

From autumnal gold and brown, we leapt to spring flowers at an all-time early date: our daffodils opened their first bobbing heads about Jan. 15. They’ve always bloomed before the end of January, but I think this was an “earliest.”

The big surprise was the geraniums. I had potted up a number of plants rather late last summer – actually I even had a few winter over from summer 2010. I don’t remember that I did anything special to save them. I may have stashed them in the screened porches or under the deck.

Anyhow, I left them out this winter as long as I thought they could take it, but soon I did bring them into the “greenhouse” room where they could be set on a bench in the corner to take up the sun with vigor. Buds slipping their way upwards between the leaves offered some hope that we might get a flower or two.

What a reward. Geraniums sent up flowers in balls of tiny flowerets, and the ones we’ve had this “spring” were from golf ball to tennis ball dimensions. The circular leaves in each plant joined in with the show forming a solid light coral display in as many as a dozen in bloom at any one time.

Another surprise this spring: Bluebirds are coming to the feeders. Bluebirds purely love new-mown grass and the bugs that flourish within it, and have never felt the need to gang up on the feeders. This year, for whatever reason, they’re visiting the local golf courses as well as our offerings on the deck.

Today, too, we had a flock of eight or more chipping sparrows on the deck, the bench, the screened porch, to name a few venues, whereas during breeding season the chipper becomes less tolerant of guests. This is another species that changes its wardrobe in winter, blending almost perfectly with the deep leaves and brush piles in our yard.

Keep your eyes open for flocks of cedar waxwings. This time of year we see them in places like landscaped parking lots, feeding on whatever flowers have begun opening, or seeds left from the season’s last migration. They can strip a nandina of its berries in no time. They are worth it.

Cedar waxwings are best sought with binoculars to find their details. A solid gray-brown body appears decorated with several applications of cedar-brown stain, fading to white under the tail, and crowned with a sharp-looking crest. A narrow eye-band looks very sinister on such a shy bird.

Here’s an update on the attempts to build a flock of sandhill cranes, so well written by Tom MacKenzie with the US Fish & Wildlife Service that I think he does not need rewriting:

“Whooping Cranes will head to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.”

“Juvenile whooping cranes on their first ultralight-led [small plane] migration south will be taken to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alabama in the next few days.   The nine whooping cranes will be loaded up in travel enclosures onto vehicles as soon as possible, driven about 70 miles from Winston County, Ala., to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. They will be placed in a secure pen, equipped with identification bands and tracking transmitters, then later released in the company of other whooping cranes that have been wintering there.

“We are fortunate to be in a position to help by standing in for our sister refuges at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks in Florida,” said Dwight Cooley, refuge manager for Wheeler refuge, on the outskirts of Decatur, Alabama, on the border of Tennessee.  While we hope they will visit us again in coming winters, where they eventually winter is not nearly as important as their survival, and the hope they will complete many more migrations in years to come. Their continued safety is our highest concern.”

He went on to say the refuge hosted more than 11,000 sandhill cranes at the refuge this winter, as well as seven whooping cranes.

“We also have fantastic observation facilities and viewing platforms that allow great views and don’t disturb the wildlife,” said Cooley. “We’ve got great habitat and conditions, as evidenced by the number of cranes wintering on the refuge.”

The original plan was to have the Operation Migration pilots use ultralight aircraft to guide the birds further south to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida – their originally planned wintering sites. The migration had been sidelined for over a month by an issue involving FAA flying policies. FAA granted a waiver for the flight, but the cranes apparently decided Alabama was far enough, refusing to follow the ultralights. The cranes had been imprinted to follow the pilots of the ultralights who are dressed in whooping crane costumes. The warm winter may also have had an impact on the cranes refusal to fly further south.

The nine whooping cranes are part of an effort to establish an Eastern Migratory population for one of the most endangered birds in the world. Cranes have been taught variations of the eastern migratory route for the past decade.

There are now about 104 cranes in the eastern population. One crane that had dropped out of the migration in the first few days ended up joining migrating sandhill cranes, ultimately wintering in Florida.”                        
Tom MacKenzie USFWS SE: 404-679-7291 

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