In late 2014, Justin found a Common Crane in Bailey County, Texas - a first state record and just last month added to the official state checklist at #643. The bird was seen by many until mid-March when the cranes departed northwards to spring staging areas and then on to their breeding grounds in Siberia.
In February 2016, Justin hit gold again, first happening upon one, and two weeks later, observing THREE Common Cranes nearby in Brownsfield, Texas. Driving from south Texas to Colorado, I knew I must meet Justin and look for the Common Crane. It ended up being quite the adventure, which I'll detail in another blog post!
Can you tell me about finding the Common Crane?
It was November 2014, and I had just started my graduate research assistantship at Texas Tech University. My research study area was centered on the oldest federal wildlife refuge in Texas, Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in Bailey County. The first month or so I was tasked with monitoring the cranes' daily movements, and their landscape use patterns: when they went to water, where they foraged. I was also checking on some lingering Snowy Plovers on the refuge saline lakes. That was the reason I was out there that particular afternoon. It was November 18th and there were 20 Snowy Plovers braving harsh, wintry conditions! It was about a month after they were supposed to be there. There also was a flock of about 4,000 Sandhill Cranes and I figured I'd scan through and get a better estimate of how many were there. That's when I spotted the Common Crane.
Did you know right away what it was?
Yes, I saw it and was like, "Holy hell, no f*cking way?!" A few more expletives were uttered and my adrenaline shot through the roof. It was kind of on my radar, but I didn't expect to find one so soon. I had only been in the position for less than 3 weeks.
Has the Common Crane been a positive influence on the area?
I think, overall, it's been very positive. Initially, there were a few incidents on the refuge, of people going into closed areas to try and get a closer look or photographs. That kind of behavior rubbed the refuge manager the wrong way. It's been a tenuous situation. Provided he's so well connected with my advisor at Texas Tech, and Texas Parks and Wildlife, the bad aspects of having the Common Crane in the study area get amplified the most, and that's, in part, how I ended up losing my graduate assistantship just last month. A couple of the project collaborators thought it was risky business for birders to be interacting with private landowners and farmers, and that was a dynamic they wanted to avoid completely.
So you can't finish your Sandhill Crane research now at Texas Tech?
I no longer have any association with the project. So I can't do anything involving Sandhill Cranes at Texas Tech. Right now I'm primarily focused on obtaining a GIS certificate. Perhaps I'll find another department to work in at Texas Tech, but I can't do anything in association with the Natural Resources Management department. I'm more or less banned from there and regarded as an outlaw. The situation has been ridiculously overblown. And I have no voice in the matter.
It's sad a small group of pessimistic people can come together and divide birding and natural resources management. I'm sorry your project was compromised as a result.
I simply don't understand how they can't see it as a positive for the community, university, and department. The more people who see this area, the more publicity is generated to protect the landscape and its wildlife. The data generated by citizen science is bringing a better understanding of Sandhill Crane distribution and movements in the core of the population's winter range. The local economies certainly appreciate the spike in tourism revenue as well.
A graduate student that knows all the bird life is an added bonus to the department. The other grad students working with cranes don't know the other birds, they're singly focused on GPS locations of tagged cranes. They're largely unfamiliar with the other birds that use the same landscapes. That was part of my research and my passion.