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The Observer Paper 10/29/14

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Expo comes home

Cathy Nowak was stunned.

She was so shocked a feather from a mallard could have knocked her over.

Nowak, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, had just spotted a sandhill crane at Ladd Marsh. The crane was one of more than 100 that come to Ladd Marsh in the spring. This one, though, was different.

The crane had punctuation — an exclamation mark on a green leg band.

Nowak knew this probably meant one thing. The bird had hatched at Ladd Marsh in 2007 or 2008 and was now returning. A check of a color-coded tag on the crane revealed that the crane had been tagged at Ladd Marsh in 2008 about six weeks after it had hatched.

This marked the first time a sandhill crane banded at Ladd Marsh after hatching there had returned.

Nowak could not contain herself.

“It was the most excited I’ve been since I’ve worked at Ladd Marsh. Oh wow! I was almost in tears I was so excited,’’ Nowak said.

The biologist and other ODFW staff members began banding greater sandhill cranes hatched at Ladd Marsh about two years ago. One crane was banded in 2007, another in 2008 and two this year. The bird banded in 2008 that returned is nicknamed “Expo’’ because of its exclamation mark.

A major purpose of the banding project is to determine where sandhill cranes hatched at Ladd Marsh go in the winter. It is assumed that the birds go to California’s Central Valley or to the Colorado River area near the California-Arizona border.

“But we do not know this,’’ Nowak said.

Biologists hope that the sandhill cranes being banded at Ladd Marsh are spotted in the winter by people who will report their locations to the ODFW or the Bird Banding Lab in Patusky Md.

Sandhill cranes do not begin nesting until they are five or six years old. Nowak hopes the ongoing study will reveal where they go before they settle down and start raising young.

“Where do the birds go in the meantime (before beginning to nest)?’’ Nowak asked.

The youngsters could be drifting though a carefree adolescence.

“They may be like teenagers going to the soda shop or smoking cigars.’’

Expo left in early June and was spotted north of Enterprise earlier this month with other cranes likely of the same age range.

“We now know where their soda shop is,’’ Nowak said.

Expo’s return this spring particularly excited biologists because it means the bird survived its first year. Young sandhills, known as colts, are extremely vulnerable to predators and other hazards. The chances that Expo will live a long life are now far better. Sandhill cranes commonly live at least 20 years in the wild and sometimes into their early 30s.

Should Expo, whose gender is not known, return to Ladd Marsh after reaching breeding age, biologists will be curious to see if the bird will nest near where it was raised. Studies show that male sandhill cranes return to the area they hatched to nest unless they are pushed away by other cranes who already claimed the site.

Sometimes young adult cranes are pushed out of the nesting area they want by their parents who return to the same site each year to nest.

Greater sandhill cranes are banded at Ladd Marsh when they are about 6 weeks old.

“We wait until they are almost ready to fly so that they are big and robust,’’ Nowak said.

A crew of six to eight people work together to capture a crane. Their first efforts are not always successful because the birds are on the verge of learning to fly.

“We take credit for teaching a number of them how to fly. They don’t know they can fly until we chase them,’’ Nowak said with a laugh.

About 13 pairs of greater sandhill cranes nested at Ladd Marsh this year. Ladd Marsh had had more than 100 sandhill cranes on some days this spring but most were lesser sandhill cranes. Lesser sandhills do not nest here, but many stop at Ladd Marsh each spring while en route to nesting sites in Alaska and Canada.

Anyone spotting a sandhill crane with a tag is encouraged to record its color sequence and then call Nowak at 963-4954 with information on its location. Nowak will pass on reports she receives to Gary Ivey, western crane conservation manager for the International Crane Foundation. Ivey, who is based in Central Oregon, is heading a sandhill crane study for the


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