Rare birds and locals

by Greg Neise on February 15, 2012

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Last week I traveled to Greene County, Indiana—along with about a thousand other birders—to see the Hooded Crane at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area (GPFWA). Like many wetlands in the midwest, GPFWA was bottomland agricultural parcels that had been purchased, the drainage tiles removed, and allowed to refill and regrow.

The results, from one point of view, have been spectacular. If you follow the Indiana birding listserve, you will be familiar with the acronym above, as well as names like “Beehunter Marsh”. In the past two to three years, the birds have reclaimed this land with a vengeance. Breeding Black-necked Stilt and Least Tern. The largest known inland breeding population of King Rail. Vagrants including Roseate Spoonbill, Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Ibis and more.

Hooded Crane at Goose Pond, 2-9-2012. © Greg Neise

And of course, cranes. Lots and lots of cranes. Last week, and estimated 15,000 Sandhill Cranes were at Goose Pond, along with a number of Whooping Cranes (from the Necedah, WI flock) and one Hooded Crane.

While I was there, dozens of birders trolled all of the roads in the area looking for the hoodie, and birding in general. The locals who passed us as we scanned the marshes and cornfields seemed indifferent to us. But the comments section of a story about the crane in the Greene County Daily World tell another side of the story…

It is great people like to watch birds, but I do not believe it actually brings much money into our area. We lost so much when the farming was destroyed there. Besides the tax income, think of the annual crops that are not produced anymore. In a world that is overpopulated, it is amazing to me that this will ever be as productive as it was before.Too many acres in our country are being trashed in the name of the wetlands. How much did the Goosepond project cost? That is not ever going to be seen here.

– Posted by minerette on Tue, Feb 14, 2012, at 11:10 AM

“How much did the Goosepond project cost?” I believe the state paid $8M for the land. I haven’t found what the work to “restore” the area cost. The land hadn’t been farmed since at least 2000 when it was placed in the Wetland Reserve Program.

– Posted by James30096 on Tue, Feb 14, 2012, at 12:46 PM

I think Mr Feaster should try driving around more than he does because if he were to drive for instance 900 W & travel north or south he will find people parked in the middle of the blacktopped county road, he will also find motorists out of their vehicles and gazing at the sky with their binoculars! This is Dangerous! The speed limit has not been lowered, so, our county roads are traveled at 55 mph there needs to be more people working for the GPWF to make motorists aware that in our county and state the county roads are traveled as if you are on a highway. would they stop in the middle of a highway?? I’ve seen alot of unbeleivable motorists this weekend!!

– Posted by abc123… on Tue, Feb 14, 2012, at 3:28 PM

Birders watching the Hooded Crane near Linton, IN, 2-9-2012. © Greg Neise

For the most part, when I’m out birding in rural areas, the local people are friendly, inquisitive and pretty much how you’d expect. But I have had a few instances where, during a Christmas count, for example, our cars were followed and our license plate numbers reported to police. Another time we were chased by a local resident who reported that we were “watching things” while wearing black ski masks (we weren’t … but it makes a good story). And there is the famous story of a local resident in Michigan that shot a Great Gray Owl to keep people off “his” road.

These kinds of situations are, thankfully, rare. But as the comments above illustrate, many of the people in rural areas come from a tradition of “taming” and “improving” the land, believing that the best use for land is agriculture. Purchasing the bottomlands with the intention of allowing them to re-flood is nearly blasphemous.

Enter into this situation extremely endangered species like Whooping Cranes. Whoopers have been shot and killed in southern Indiana (one in 2010, and another just a few weeks ago), Georgia (three birds in 2010) and Louisiana (two birds last year). In one of the Indiana cases, the shooter was a minor, who was sentenced to a year of probation and a one-dollar fine (yes, one dollar.) The defense was that it was just stupid kids out shooting at things. But the cynical side of me has to think that they knew what they were doing, and may have been encouraged to do so. Get rid of the cranes, and maybe the refuge will go away too. I know of similar situations where farmers are afraid to have Barn Owls on their property for fear that the government will take the land from them. So they “discourage” the owls.

Whooping Cranes in southern Indiana, 2-9-2012. © Greg Neise

Preserving and reclaiming wild places in rural America is a worthwhile cause for everyone. Yet, the communication gap is wide and sometimes treacherous.

I think that the cranes, the farmers and the birders can all get along very happily. But we have a long way to go, and at this point I think it is upon the birding community to reach out, be respectful, and most importantly, engage the locals when we’re out in the boonies. If someone pulls over to ask what you’re up to, don’t just say “looking at birds”. Say hi, and let them have a look through your scope. Tell them how far you’ve travelled to enjoy their home. Help the reclamation of wetlands, prairies and such become a source of pride, rather than disdain.

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  • Psw2

    Excellent blog, Greg. There was also a time when many of us would leave a card with local gas stations, restaurants, etc. that would extend appreciation for their service and communicate that we were in town for the purpose of birding at a specific location.

    There is obviously a lot of public relations needed between birders and local residents impacted by our avocation. There is also a need for better planning. The lack of adequate pull-offs or parking areas in potentially popular wildlife viewing areas is obvious. The scene of dozens of cars pulled partially off the road while cars whip by at 75mph is dangerous. We lost a well-known birder a few years ago that was pulled off on the shoulder of a highway looking at birds and was rear-ended by a drunk driver (in the middle of the morning).

    Greg raises some very important issues and questions that should be considered by ABA, IOS, Audubon and other organizations.

  • Psw2

    Excellent blog, Greg. There was also a time when many of us would leave a card with local gas stations, restaurants, etc. that would extend appreciation for their service and communicate that we were in town for the purpose of birding at a specific location.

    There is obviously a lot of public relations needed between birders and local residents impacted by our avocation. There is also a need for better planning. The lack of adequate pull-offs or parking areas in potentially popular wildlife viewing areas is obvious. The scene of dozens of cars pulled partially off the road while cars whip by at 75mph is dangerous. We lost a well-known birder a few years ago that was pulled off on the shoulder of a highway looking at birds and was rear-ended by a drunk driver (in the middle of the morning).

    Greg raises some very important issues and questions that should be considered by ABA, IOS, Audubon and other organizations.

  • greeneacres

    Unfortunately, you opinion that reclamation is good doesn’t in fact make it fact. The economic impact on us in Greene (as opposed to Green, see above) County was tremendous. In a time of waste in government, this is a prime example. There are countless aspiring farmers faced with no land situations, and this made it worse. Mosquitoes, snakes, and other pests have flooded the area. Most importantly to me (an agriculturalist), the watershed condition is destroyed. The Goose Pond is the lowest lying area around, and two major ditches flow through and out of it. Our surface water goes there and out, or did. Now, all of our surface drainage is backed up. Sad part is, there isn’t any of the money we were promised. Bird watchers don’t pay anything to park in the middle of the road. These birds landed in corn field ponding for one hundred years, and could continue to do so. To waste money on them in unfathomable. They don’t pay my bills, or anyone’s who isn’t a GPFW employee. Tragic waste.

  • Ariana Moretti

    I don’t remember those crops in the Goose Pond being a huge impact to Greene County economics most of the last 30 years. Half the time those fields were under water anyways. I find it sad that so many citizens of Greene County are so shallow and closed minded that they don’t see there is money being spent by these birders and wildlife enthusiasts. People will eat and need fuel while in the area, especially those that come from out of the region or state. I for one appreciate that this was a wetland long before it was farmland and the state and county took action to rightfully return it as such in an area that has been ravaged by coal mining and wasn’t always reclaimed properly. I left to serve my country 20 years ago but I am amazed at how the area has grown in many ways and in others such as this, the mentality of the people is light years behind. If you don’t like the fact the area is economically depressed work with your fellow citizens to change that or get the heck out of GC.

  • greeneacres

    Most people who aren’t in agriculture don’t see the impact, but the millions of dollars spent there is a fact. Some 3 million dollars a year were spent to farm the Goose Pond. I doubt that much is being spent on fuel and convenience store snacks.  Being under water is a plight of farming, and happens everywhere. That is a management issue. There is a farmer who works some of the same soil adjacent of the wild life area productively, because of good management. Environmental rhetoric is just that. It will be several lifetimes before the cost of the Goose Pond is made up by the purchase of gasoline, Big Macs and Little Debbie Snack Cakes.

    • http://www.nabirding.com Greg Neise

      Greenacres, thanks for the reply and for participating here. Can you tell me how you arrived at the 3 million figure, and do you have any information on how much of that was subsidized by the government?

      • greeneacres

         Greg, I looked on the EWG farm subsidy database, but the farm operating the ground, Wilder Corp, is a national company farming different operations in different states, and I couldn’t get a absolute figure for the Goose Pond farm. Since 1995 however, the entire farming entity received 1.8 million dollars. That is only 125,000 dollars per year. That is only 3% of money spent. Furthermore, that figure is current to 2010, longer than the Goose Pond was farmed. The figure of 3.8 million comes from several local farmers and acquaintances of Wilder. It is frequent on the same newspaper you yourself quoted, and I believe originated either from the USDA or a Purdue University extension agent. I am researching this currently. It is, however, a consensus and accepted in the local agricultural community.  

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