THE MAGIC OF MIGRATION

by Cadell Walker, Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky

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After working at The Nature Conservancy for many years, I am familiar with the annual Sandhill crane migration which takes place a few states away in Nebraska – smack dab in the middle of the country. This year I had the honor of witnessing this annual wonder first-hand.

I arrived in Grand Island, Nebraska on a Monday evening and upon debarking the plane was treated to hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of snow geese. I saw more near the hotel, where they congregated at a makeshift wetland caused by recent flooding. Pictures couldn’t do justice to the sheer numbers of waterfowl, especially the distinct sound….and the smell. I suspected that maybe they were the opening act for what was to come.

After settling in, I attended a presentation by the Conservancy’s Nebraska State Director, Mace Hack, who spoke about Sandhill crane migration. I learned that this annual gathering attracts more than 500,000 Sandhill cranes – about 80 percent of the world’s population – to Nebraska’s Platte River each spring. In fact, their arrival queues local residents in to the official beginning of Spring.

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Why Nebraska? Evidently the state offers perfect conditions for Sandhill cranes embarking on their long journey to locations as far north as Alaska and Siberia. Waste from farm fields and small invertebrates inhabiting the river and surrounding marshes provides lots of opportunity for putting on the weight required for the trip. It is not uncommon for a Sandhill crane to add 20 percent to its weight during a two or three week visit to their Platte River Sandhill crane resort.

The Platte River also provides Sandhill cranes with good protection at night. Wide and shallow, the river allows the birds to stand in the water and avoid coyotes and other predators. Come morning, they return to the fields in communal song after a safe night’s sleep.

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This year, due to the cold winter, there were fewer Sandhill cranes than usual. But the show was no less spectacular. After driving along some country roads, we reached the bird blind located on the Conservancy’s property. Then came the magic. After one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen, we witnessed thousands of Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, snow geese and bald eagles in front of the blind and they stretched out for miles and miles beyond the horizon.

As night fell and the Sandhill cranes left for their posts in the river, our group quietly departed through a cornfield lit by the moon and stars. I left not only with a check mark next to an item from my own personal “bucket list,” but with pride in being part of an organization which plays a role in conserving river habitat critical to wildlife. I couldn’t wait to return to Kentucky to focus in on our own unique species and places back in the Bluegrass State.IMG_1025

Night Shift For Nature: Monitoring Bats Along the Green River

by Mike Hensley

So the call came again. Santiago Martin, a partner at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), wanted to head out into the night to monitor bats near the Green River. Our partners from USFWS call from time to time for help in lining up good places for conducting this work. Sometimes I suggest one of the Conservancy’s nature preserves. Other times, I can line up a landowner willing to host us for the night.

I love getting these calls because regular folks like me can’t just head out to assess the condition of bats. You need special permits for that because some of these furry friends are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Santiago Martin weighs a gray bat near Kentucky's Green River.

Santiago Martin weighs a gray bat near Kentucky’s Green River.

I also help with the actual work—setting up the netting equipment and collecting data when a bat is captured. The process is pretty straightforward. An hour or so before dusk, we arrive at the site and pick out a location for setting up nets – typically near a body of water or in the woods and brushy fields where bats like to feed. A wooded tunnel is an ideal spot. (Picture a 15 to 20-foot wide trail running along the edge of a river with a closed forest canopy above it.)

On this night, we set up at a property located along the Little Barren River, a few miles away from the confluence with the Green River. The property is actually owned by Chris Mason, one of our conservation colleagues at Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Once nets are set up and darkness arrives, we find a comfortable place to sit with the equipment and set a ten-minute timer. Then, every ten minutes we check the nets. Sometimes we have a bat; most times we don’t. If we find a bat, we carefully remove it and return to the sit-down location to collect the data: measurements, gender and species. Then we release the bat back to the wild. We continue to do this every ten minutes for at least four or five hours before calling it a night.

Measuring a bat captured for study near Kentucky's Green River.

Measuring a bat captured for study near Kentucky’s Green River.

At one point in the night the Kentucky Chapter’s Director of Conservation Programs, Jeff Sole, and our new State Director David Phemister, paid us a visit. They must have been good luck because we found a gray bat in the net soon after their arrival! By the end of the night, we caught, studied and released (in order captured) a gray bat, two red bats, a little brown bat and a second gray bat.

A scientist handles a Gray bat captured near Kentucky's Green River.

A scientist handles a Gray bat captured near Kentucky’s Green River.

It’s a treat to help with this work once or twice each summer. One of the best parts of this type of work is meeting and working with really dedicated and skilled people and Santiago fit the bill. As a whole, the bats aren’t doing so well, so this work is very important to understanding the Green River habitat these bats depend upon for survival. Collecting as much information as we can will guide efforts to improve the situation for bats.