On the Trail of the Whooping Crane

Yesterday the Tuesday Morning Group made a convoy (can two vehicles constitute a convoy?) and we drove north out of Jackson to search for the whooping crane.  Whooping cranes are few and far between, and last year one turned up at Haehnle Sanctuary with the sandhill cranes.  It was tagged (so folks are able to identify this specific bird) and went south with the local cranes for the winter.  This year birders across Michigan and Ohio have had their collective eyes peeled for the return of this bird.  For some time it did not reappear, leaving many to think that it didn’t survive the winter.  However, it did eventually turn up in Ohio and then made its way to the fields of cranes around Haehnle Sanctuary and Waterloo State Park.

Our trip took us out past the prison, where many sandhills were feeding in the recently harvested fields, and over towards the booming metropolis of Munith.  We made a pitstop, took in the sites, and continued on our way.

The land north and east of Jackson is rolling farm country and quite lovely.  Okay, the land in the photo below isn’t really “rolling,” but to either side of this field it was.

We did most of our birding from the vehicles – scanning every field of cranes for that one white bird.  Sandhills, at this time of year, are mostly grey, so a whooping crane, which is very white, stands out like a sore thumb.  Sadly, we didn’t find it.

As we cruised by this wetland, things started to look a bit familiar to me.  Hey!  This is one of the two areas of Haehnle Sanctuary that was burned two weeks ago!  (See my account of the burn here, if you are interested.)

We ended up at the observation hill at the Sanctuary.

No cranes – wrong time of day.  But we did see some coots and mallards down in the marsh.

Gary set up the spotting scope so people could see more than just dots moving on the water.  The birds that caught most of our attention, however, were three red-tail hawks, which we think were a family unit.

A juvenile sat in a tree way down by the marsh.  We got a good look at it through the spotting scope.

Meanwhile, two others, presumably the adults, flew overhead, soaring lazily on the thermals and occasionally calling out to each other.

It was such a lovely morning that we soon abandoned the hill and took to the trails.  The weedy tangle to the right is prime habitat for all sorts of songbirds.  We played recordings of a screech owl and a fox sparrow in hopes of stirring up some sputzies.  Gary pointed out the calls of the fox sparrows, which are newly arrived from up north, but we didn’t actually see them.  The tangle hid them well.

Although the volunteers at Haehnle Sanctuary are working hard to get invasive species under control, nature has a way of spreading them much faster than people can keep up with them.  And even though these honeysuckles are invasive, they certainly are pretty in the fall.

We came across the territorial markings of a buck.  He had chewed the heck out of this branch,

and scraped up the ground underneath.  If you look carefully, you can see some deer tracks in the scrape.  Perhaps a doe came to visit this spot?  Or maybe another buck, checking out the competition?

Now, this plant threw us all for a loop.  It was tall, had wonderful pods, and there were about a half dozen or so in this one spot.  We looked at it, examined it from every angle, and no one knew what it was.

I looked it up this morning because my curiosity was driving me nuts.  It turns out this is a plant known as velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti).  It is also known as Indian mallow, butterprint and buttonweed.  And yes, it is an invasive species.  How invasive?  Well, it all depends on where you look.  In some states it is merely considered a noxious weed, while it other states it is given the highest classification possible and comes with a warning to quarantine the plant and its seeds.

This plant’s homeland is China, where it has been under cultivation for over 4000 years!  In its native habitat, it is valued for its strong, jute-like fibers, and for its edible leaves.  It is also grown for oil, and is used in a variety of medicines.

In the rest of the world, however, it is an aggressive alien and is considered to be extremely damaging in agricultural areas, especially those that grow corn and soybeans (like this part of Michigan).  Are there any controls for it?  Back in China there are a variety of fungi and insects that keep it in check, but none of them are host-specific, so we can’t turn them loose here.  If you find this plant, remove and destroy it.

On a more positive note, we found some lovely native plants that are equally pleasing to the eye.  The one below that is being fondled is round-headed bush clover.  This is a tall clover that grows in native grasslands around here, and even now, when the plant is dry at the end of the season, the flowerheads are soft.

Here we have one of the foxtail grasses.  Unless one is a grass expert, grasses can be very difficult to ID.  Just when we thought we knew which one this might be, we found a clue that suggested we were wrong.  So, if anyone is a grass expert out there, and you know what this is, please drop us a comment below!

The blackberries were still holding on to their leaves, which were glorious in their autumn splendor.

We stopped along the side of the lake, just in case the whooping crane was here.  No luck.

We found some beautiful fungi sporting the russet colors of fall:

The recent spate of warm days has caused some buds to swell.  We saw a red maple that looked like it would burst into leaf in a week or two, and right along the trail the spicebush flower buds (below) were tightly swollen, too.  It’s odd to see green this time of year.

The trail brought us out to the other burn site from the 10th – a patch of prairie.  Here we found a lovely sample of turkey scat.

And woolly bears!  These to Isabella tiger moth larvae were quite energetic and didn’t stay balled up in my hand for very long.  One even left me a gift.

We never did see the whooping crane, but in the end we still had a lovely, educational morning outside, taking in the birds, plants, mammals, fungi and insects of autumn.


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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