January 16, 2016: Chasing cranes

Friday afternoon a post came up on the Mobirds mailing list detailing sighting of four immature Whooping Cranes on Kaskaskia Island in Illinois. I had been planning to go out to Maintz Conservation Area to look for woodcocks on Saturday, but I had to change my plans — Kaskaskia is only about a half-hour drive from my house. I emailed Mark Haas mentioning it, and late in the day he called to propose that we drive up together.

So, 6:30 on Saturday morning, I pulled into the commuter lot by the Oak Ridge exit on I-55. Mark was in his truck waiting, and we moved my scope and backpack into the cab. It was about 25 degrees, but with coveralls, a wool cap, and neck gaiter, I was comfortable enough. We drove up to Kaskaskia and discussed the cranes. We both saw the pair of cranes that visited Union County, IL a couple of years ago, so we had Whoopers on our Illinois lists.* The thing is, Kaskaskia “island” is actually an area inside a bend in the Mississippi where Illinois land is on the west side of the river. So if birds are in Kaskaskia, they’d only need to move a little way west to cross the state line and be in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri. Jokingly, we talked about trying to scare them that way — but no ethical birder would purposely flush birds, especially critically endangered birds who are already off course for their normal migration.

We got to St. Mary, Missouri and turned onto State Road U; within a few hundred yards it crossed the line and became Illinois 15. As we drove past a group of houses, we saw several sparrows on the ground, so we stopped and got out for a while. It was a very birdy yard, with several White-breasted Nuthatches, some juncos, starlings, a couple of kinds of woodpeckers, a Golden-Crowned Kinglet, etc. After a while, though, we had to keep moving, as the cranes awaited. We hoped.

We got to the spot where they’d been reported and found no tall birds. Well, maybe they would show up; it was still only a little after 7, and a cold, cloudy morning. We proceeded to drive down a farm road, stopping to look at a fluddle with various ducks on it, some Horned Larks in the field, a Bald Eagle perched in a distant tree … and Mark says “there they go!” Four big white birds flying over the levee to our west. They went down beyond a tree line, and we drove back up the road and climbed the levee. There they were, walking around out on the mud flats – four giant white birds with rust-brown heads and spotting on their wings, and big colored plastic bands on each leg.

Whooping Cranes

By this time, several other vehicles had arrived, and we were part of a group of about 10 birders peering at the cranes through scopes. Somebody mentioned that there were a couple of Mute Swans over in a farmyard; I looked momentarily with binoculars, saw them squatting next to pond in a fenced yard, and figured they were domesticated. Not countable, so I went back to the cranes and the assorted woodpeckers in the tree line.

As we watched the cranes walk around in the mud flat, they got further and further away from us, edging gradually westward toward a dike on the other side. Was that the Missouri line over there? I pulled out my phone and looked at Google Maps. Quickly I realized that the state line where we were didn’t follow a dike or a watercourse — it was right out in the middle of those mud flats, and I was pretty sure that the cranes were now on the other side. We’d seen them in two states in the same morning!

Mark and I drove to the Missouri side looking for access to that far dike, but the remnants of recent flooding made the (private) road there impassable even if we’d wanted to risk trespass. We headed for Perry County Lake to finish out the morning instead.

At home later, I put records in ebird for both Kaskaskia Island and “near St. Mary”. And started reading the posts on Mobirds. Luann Holst was bemoaning a camera memory card that went kaput with her crane pics on it. Others were discussing which side of the state line the birds had been on. And Rob Francis posted that he’d seen two Trumpeter Swans. I responded “I saw two Mute Swans, and thought they were domesticated and uncountable.” He responded privately with a pic of them, and they clearly weren’t Mute Swans, but looked good for Trumpeter — I took back my comment. And then David Marjaama emailed me privately to say that he and his wife MaryAnne had walked into the farmyard and found that they were “roboswans” — decoys with hinged necks that can be repositioned to imitate live birds. When I looked at one of the pics on an ebird record, I could see the seams around their necks easily.

Trumpeter Swan decoys

So I guess those were some good decoys — fooled a number of birders, at least.

*Yes, I keep state lists now. Thanks to ebird, you can hardly avoid it. It’s so easy to see your world, continent, state, county, etc. list that you just become aware of such things.

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