Steve Meurett/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
My pilot Beverly Paulan from the Wisconsin DNR kept apologizing. We'd circle and circle, wingtip pointed to the ground in an ever tightening noose around the radio collar signal. Leafless trees and remnant patches of snow remained below, but our elusive quarry kept out of sight-they are seemingly getting better at it.
I was fortunate enough to be able to join Beverly on another wildlife survey flight for the DNR. Rain during the week had snuffed out her fire protection duties, so it was back to checking on collared wolves, whooping cranes and trumpeter swans.
I'd hoped this early spring day may reward me with a few photographs of canis lupus below, but as it turned out, they stayed hidden. I deflected the apologies, stressing rather that cruising above the west central part of the state at 1500 feet on a beautiful morning was reward enough and about the best possible way to start a day.
There is something mesmerizing about viewing the landscape from this perspective-intriguing patterns formed by deer trails across marshes, the old meanders of streams and rivers through flood plain and even man-made ones on farm fields and forest trails. It was interesting seeing the progression of ice-out on various ponds, lakes and rivers as we flew overhead as well.
The main goal of the flight was to locate radio pings from collared wolves in an ongoing study. It's captivating to see where they have moved from one week to another or if they stayed in a home range. Sadly, three of them had been shot since I flew with Beverly just last year-it's difficult to make it as a wolf in this part of the state, apparently. Some have survived two hunting seasons, poachers, cars and even an air guard bombing range. It's pretty amazing, really, all things considered.
Even narrowing a strong signal down to an acre below the plane, or even a clump of trees, their natural camouflage in the drab spring forest kept them concealed. For us, disappointing. For them, probably, a good thing to have learned.
It seemed a pair of endangered whooping cranes decided to take up residence in Juneau County, somewhat encouraged by locals who fed them, not in the bird's best interest (or the nearby F-16s).
Whooping cranes continue to struggle in their recovery-a couple steps forward and a few backward apparently, a frustration for the restoration staff. While sandhill cranes have done very well in Wisconsin and elsewhere, whooping cranes, although similar, lead more complex lives hampering recovery.
Besides their bright white plumage, making concealment difficult, whoopers are also more territorial than their smaller cousins. While sandhills do well in agricultural areas, whooping cranes prefer wetlands and are not as adaptive in diet, also compromising survivability. This pair near Highway 94 most likely will have to be captured and relocated for their safety and that of the pilots in military airspace nearby. Too bad some in the area are treating the pair of birds as 'theirs' and as a result, endangering them.
After discovering that this pair had not nested yet and recording their location, we began the flight back, taking us over the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, home to over 30 whooping cranes and small groups of trumpeter swans.
Once known as the 'Great Wisconsin Swamp' the refuge was established in 1939 and home to many threatened and endangered species. Our flight path allowed a good view of one of the largest restored oak savannahs in the state, crucial for redheaded woodpecker and Karner Blue butterfly habitat. The 44,000 acre 'swamp' is a maze of old canals, ponds, marshes and scattered patches of timber.
Every scrap of water seemed to have local and migrating waterfowl on it and I constantly misidentified trumpeter swans as whoopers from above. Capturing any images was challenging shooting from the plane and we didn’t want to close the distance too much and change their behavior.
With the autopilot set, the aircraft departed for its home base in Eau Claire. The steady flight back provided an opportunity to just take in the view and for myself to try and identify where exactly we were by dead reckoning from landmarks passing below. I became more comfortable with the self-assigned task once we reached Clark, Eau Claire and Trempealeau Counties, my stomping grounds.
Spotting a pair of young eagles spiraling and chasing each other, I was struck at how fascinating it was to observe them from above! This perspective also allowed an informal survey of how the turkey population faired the harsh winter and from the lack of toms displaying in the hundreds of fields we passed, the conclusion I drew was not well.
In fact, we spotted many more deer than turkey in open areas, which was a surprise.
All to soon the small plane arrived back at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport and taxied to the hanger. Observation data would be recorded and observations passed along to various researchers as part of Paulan’s duties.
The second plane stationed here was out working bald eagle surveys, a species, unlike the cranes we’d observed, has been very successful in their reestablishment. Although as a photographer, I’d have liked to have made a few more images from the aerial vantage point, I’d stowed plenty away in my mind from this trip and sometimes that is just as satisfying.
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Steve Meurett lives, works and plays in West Central Wisconsin and spends about every free moment outdoors where his passions lie. His outdoor interests take him on and off trail, pursuing mountain biking and skinny skiing, photography and hunting, while keeping an eye on wild mushrooms and the next fruit for craft wine. Steve is the Trail Director at The Levis Mound Trail System and member of the Clark County Trails Advisory Committee. He resides, teaches and is a photographer in Neillsville. Steve can be reached at email@example.com.