Destination Quivira Refuge Attracts International Researchers

National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration feature's Quivira's Native American heritage

Whooper network Quivira Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms part of national effort to track rare birds

Pullout Whoopers
mark record year

Refuge manager turns in his gun Dave Hilley leaves 29-year career with Fish and Wildlife Service

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Destination Quivira Refuge attracts international researchers

By PAM MARTIN
pmartin@gbtribune.com

Schlup, Schlup, Schlup... The sound of sandaled feet fighting free of gray mud mixes with the high-pitched beep of a radio tracking receiver held and controlled by graduate student, Samantha Franks, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Student assistants Jill Andersen, also of Vancouver, and David Hodkinson, of Sheffield, England, carry equipment and handle a spotting scope to try and locate their quarry - a radio-tagged least sandpiper. Feathered visitors from the arctic and subarctic are arriving at Quivira National Wildlife by the thousands, attracted by the area's mud flats teeming with tiny crustaceans, worms and insects that provide fuel for the rest of their journey to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America. Joining them are a group of international researchers from Canada and England. Tracking the birds can take as little time as 10 minutes or as long as eight hours, Andersen said. The morning does not start out well. Just as the three researchers hone in on the least and western sandpipers they are tracking, a peregrine falcon flies overhead, flushing birds in all directions. Each radio has its own frequency, Franks explains. "This one is once every three seconds." After finding the least sandpiper's frequency, she determines how far away the bird is located by the signal's intensity. The radio signal's range is about 700 meters. While Franks is adjusting the receiver antenna, Hodkinson uses the spotting scope to try and find the bird's leg tag, which had been attached earlier, along with the radio, after the bird was captured. The small radios, composed of a tiny bulbous end with a thin antenna, are attached to the birds' backs with super glue. A few feathers are removed between the bird's wing, glue applied to a small patch of skin and the radio is attached to the spot. The technique has been successfully used by other researchers but, due to some unknown reason, many of the radios have dropped off. The students arrived in early July to begin the second year of Franks' master's degree research project on least, semipalmated and western sandpipers. "The main thrust (of the research) is molting and migration and their relationship to each other," Franks said. Her original intent was to compare past western sandpiper migration with current data, using banding information gathered by Ed Martinez of Great Bend, who had worked with her supervisor. Martinez banded birds independently for 30 years, from the mid-1970s into the 1990s. "He accumulated a massive data set," Franks said. However, she could not find many western sandpipers. "My idea has evolved," she said. Franks noticed some of the sandpipers were molting - shedding old feathers and growing new ones - during migration. After researching further, she found birds use a combination of migration and molting strategies - some molt before migration, others after migration. Through observation and data collection, Franks found 65 percent of the least sandpipers were molting during their month-long stay at Quivira, the southern point of their migration. The least sandpipers seem to be utilizing a third strategy, completing their molt during a migration stop over. Wading through knee-high water, they cross patches of wiry marsh grass, stopping when the signal becomes stronger. Moving back and forth, Franks determines their quarry is in a smaller pool with several other shore birds. "We've seen 68 (the bird's number) two or three times but we haven't established its molt yet," she said. Hodkinson finds the bird with the spotting scope. Twenty minutes has elapsed. As the birds take wing, Hodkinson calls out, "He's molting." "Yes!" exclaims Franks. "It's usually harder work than that," Hodkinson said. Tracking is one part of the research work. Early mornings, beginning at 6:30 a.m., and evenings are spent capturing birds in mist nets strung across a portion of the salt flat where a backdrop of tall reeds helps hide the net. The three researchers have banded 400 birds to date. Dress for their work includes long pants and mosquito netting to ward off the blood-thirsty insects, a hat for protection from the Kansas sun and sandals or swim shoes for wading through brackish water and oozing, sticky mud. They must work fast, which is difficult when several birds are caught at once. The small blood sample for the triglyceride test should be collected within 20 minutes and not more than an hour after capture, Andersen said. Triglycerides, found in blood plasma, indicate the amount of fats eaten in foods. Working quickly, as a rainbow formed to the east and lightening spiked to the south, Franks and Andersen collected samples and information on five captured birds on a recent evening. A thick, three-ring notebook contains meticulous records from each bird, including weight, sex, wing condition, body size, general condition and molting stage. With males and females nearly identical, a small drop of blood is often collected for DNA testing to make a final determination. Talking to the birds, the women hold them carefully but firmly while taking measurements. Attached to each bird's leg is a numbered, metal band and a colored, numbered tag. The tag makes the birds easier to identify in the field, Andersen explained. After a couple months of working together, the three work efficiently. The birds are released, skittering away. Hodkinson hurries to take the nets down. Equipment is packed, as rain drops begin to fall. After slogging back through the marsh, the group makes it to the truck just as rain pours down. It's not the best working conditions, but each hopes to continue in a similar career. "I didn't want to be stuck in a lab all my life," Franks said. "I enjoy camping and hiking." "And you get paid for it," added Hodkinson. "It's very rewarding. It's being paid for your hobby. Even if it's in bad conditions and in a thunderstorm, it's still better than in an office." There's not a lot of monotony, Andersen said, but added, "no one loves getting up at 5 in the morning."


National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration feature's Quivira's Native American heritage

By PAM MARTIN
pmartin@gbtribune.com
Quivira's dancing ground' National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration feature's Quivira's Native American heritage By PAM MARTIN pmartin@gbtribune.com People paused around the pond at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, as the haunting notes of a flute song carried on the wind. Navajo artist and educator Dennis Lee Rogers brought three different flutes with him, playing each for the crowd of 350 to 400 people. "This came in the mail from someone," Rogers said, holding a polished buffalo horn. "I thought well this is beautiful, with an abalone inlay' and then I noticed it had holes." Lightly hitting his head with his hand, Rogers said, "Well, you dummy, this is a flute." Scattering light humor through his presentations, Rogers worked in messages about Native American beliefs and culture, stressing understanding among cultures. A one-man show, Rogers played the flute, danced and created a sandpainting. Earlier in the week, Rogers gave a presentation to the Stafford Lions Club, presented two assemblies to Stafford elementary and middle school students and spoke at a church service. "His efforts ahead of time not only helped him, it got people to the refuge," said QNWR Manager Dave Hilley. And that is the whole idea behind the event. The Friends of Quivira began celebrating National Wildlife Refuge Week about 10 years ago, Hilley said. The celebration evolved to a one-day event, with demonstrations, displays and entertainment centering on themes of the area's wildlife and culture. "We have a lot of people who visit on a regular basis because of an original visit to one of these events," Hilley said. Those who attended came from Harper, Kiowa, Reno, Barton and Pratt Counties, he said. "I fully believe we had 400 to 500 people here." In addition to Rogers' presentations, visitors were treated to hands-on activities that included crafts, wildlife information and mountain man survival skills. At 5 p.m., the Friends of Quivira served a hog roast meal. Rogers stole the spotlight, however. Trickling colored sand through his fingertips, he created a demonstration sandpainting during the afternoon. A true sandpainting made by a medicine man is a ceremony conducted over two to nine days for healing purposes or it may be a small painting to mark a happy occurrence such as a birth or marriage. All of the colored sands, except the turquoise-colored, were natural, Rogers said, coming from the Western states. When the ritual is completed, all the sands are swept away in reverse order. The Navajo people are also known for their weaving abilities. Pointing to a small woven hanging, Rogers said commercial dyes are now used in place of the natural dyes used by his grandmother. "My grandmother wouldn't have stood for that," he said. Rogers, who grew up in Topeka, spent his summers with his grandparents on a reservation. They spoke no English. Bilingual until the first grade, Rogers said his command of the Navajo language is not fluent but he is working to improve it, and learn Japanese and Spanish. As Rogers put on his dance regalia, he explained the feathers in the roach (head piece) and bustle (waist item) were from the bald eagle. It took a long time to collect the feathers, which Native Americans can acquire through the federal government, because he wanted feathers from a bird that had died naturally rather than one that had hit utility wires or some other man-made device. Rogers ended his program by saying "good-bye" in Navajo, Japanese, Spanish and two other languages. After his program was over, Rogers met with people, signing autographs and collecting donations for a scholarship he provides annually. As the sun set, he began to pack up his regalia and other items, each of which was carefully wrapped and stowed in his van. The final act - destroying the sandpainting in a private ceremony. The sand dispersed to the mingle with sands of Quivira.


Whooper network Quivira Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms part of national effort to track rare bird

By PAM MARTIN
pmartin@gbtribune.com

Whooper network Quivira Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms part of national effort to track rare bird By PAM MARTIN pmartin@gbtribune.com Quivira National Wildlife Refuge's Big Salt Marsh gleams silver as the first light of day strikes the water. A low hum grows in volume and small flocks of geese begin leaving the water's edge. The sky turns a vivid pink and hundreds of thousands of geese take wing, emanating outward in expanding waves over the small hill top where Gary "Pete" Meggers is stationed. "Listen. You can hear their wings," Meggers said. During fall migration, Meggers, a QNWR range management specialist, can be found on "the hill" by 7 a.m. most days, searching for whooping cranes. After checking for whoopers from his vantage point, Meggers makes a round of the refuge, checking all the usual spots the birds have frequented in the past. Three large white birds, standing alone in shallow water cause a moment of excitement, but they turn out to be pelicans. Meggers returns to his other duties at the refuge, with plans to return at dusk to start the search again. From mid-October to mid-November, Meggers and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area Manager Karl Grover are part of a network of 24 cooperators and 10 to 15 volunteers from North Dakota to Texas, who track the 2,500-mile southward migration of one of the world's rarest birds to overwintering grounds at or near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. With a much smaller staff, Grover said he cannot assign one person to monitoring whooping crane sightings but, he said, "we're out every day and when we're out, we're looking." The group also monitors the great white bird's northward spring migration but the stop-over time is shorter. The whoopers are in a hurry to get to breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and do not stay in any one place very long. For 15 years, half the time records have been kept, Meggers has been keeping whooper sighting records at QNWR, searching for the birds himself and tracking down sightings by hunters, bird watchers and farmers in the area outside the refuge to confirm actual sightings. Other QNWR staff and volunteers assist him, so he can have some Sundays and days off. "You have to visit with people and ask a lot of questions," Meggers said. "If they saw the birds sitting in a tree, you know it's not a whooper." People often confuse pelicans, egrets and snow geese for whooping cranes but that's OK with Martha Tacha, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist stationed in Grand Rapids, Neb. "It's encouraging to me that they notice," said Tacha, who took over maintaining the whooping crane sighting data base in 2005. "They cared enough to send me information and I think that's wonderful. It indicates they're aware of wildlife." Meggers and Grover report their findings to Tacha, who enters the information into the data base and tracks the whoopers' migration. She replaced Wallace "Wally" Jobman, who began the task in 1975, a result of the whooping crane tracking project. "It's one of the things I enjoy the most," Tacha said. The data base contains about 1,900 confirmed sightings that provides scientists with information needed to continue conservation efforts. The information is used to determine the timing of migration and identify the most important stop-over areas on the Central Flyway migration corridor, of which Quivira, Cheyenne Bottoms and Salt Plains NWR in Oklahoma are the three most important managed sites during the fall. The refueling areas are vitally important in preserving a species that only numbered 16 wild individuals in 1939. Conservation efforts have increased the wild migrating population to over 200 in 69 years. Normally, Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms are two of the areas providing the best chances for sighting whooping cranes, who travel in family units. Quivira averages 30 to 35 whoopers per fall migration, with a top recording of 62 in one year, Meggers said. This year has been unusual however. A pair of adult whoopers arrived at QNWR on Oct. 25, followed by two more pairs that arrived that evening. So far, that's been it. "It depends so much on weather and the experience of the birds," Tacha said. Information from the data base is also used to monitor and collect information on whooping cranes that were color banded in the 1970s and 1980s. Last spring, three family groups arrived at Quivira, with one adult in each group containing a leg band. "I called Martha in Grand Island, Neb., and she could tell me which was the male and female," Meggers said. Information from the data base has shown an eastward migration shift by cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska that is believed to be the result of habitat deterioration. After identifying areas used by whoopers, researchers took exact measurements of water depth, channel width, vegetation and other perimeters for use in restoring protected areas to make them more attractive for the birds. The records Grover and Meggers keep are full of unusual facts. "On Nov. 1, 1994, we had the most ever in the Bottoms basin," Grover said. "I wrote a summary sheet because it was really an unusual year." A total of 18 whooping cranes stopped at the Bottoms and they stayed 48 continuous days. From Oct. 13 to Nov. 29, at least two whoopers were present in the wildlife area. Once the water began to freeze over, the last cranes finally left. "You want to see something comical, watch a whooping crane walk on ice," Grover said. Meggers was involved in two attempts to capture an injured female whooping crane in fall of 1998. The whooping crane turned out to be an elusive quarry, as two attempts using helicopters failed. She even evaded attempts by Kent Clegg, who successfully taught human-raised whooping cranes to migrate by painting an ultralight aircraft like an adult crane and flying the young south. Last year was the first year Meggers sighted twin chicks on the refuge and he once spotted a pair of whooping cranes that had adopted a juvenile sandhill crane. All of the information gathered is important to the continuing survival of the species. "This is the only place you can find whooping cranes in the world," Meggers said. "And right through here, is the original migrating flock."


Pullout Whoopers mark record year

Pullout Whoopers mark record year 2007 has been a successful fledgling year for whooping cranes. Co-leaders of the Canada/US Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Brian Johns, Canadian Wildlife Service, and Tom Stehn, Aransas NWR in Texas, have reported a total of 84 chicks hatched from 65 nests. Over 250 adult and immature cranes are expected to arrive in Aransas. A final tally of chicks will not be recorded until migration is complete and a final population census taken at Aransas. There are two other wild populations of whooping cranes, a non-migratory population in Florida and an introduced population that migrates between Wisconsin and Florida. On Friday, two whooping cranes were spotted at Cheyenne Bottoms.


Refuge manager turns in his gun Dave Hilley leaves 29-year career with Fish and Wildlife Service

"It's been a good time." Dave Hilley, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge manager

By PAM MARTIN
pmartin@gbtribune.com


Plant vines crisscross the walls and ceilings of Quivira National Wildlife Refuge Manager Dave Hilley's office. Stuffed birds, including a pink flamingo, stare with glass eyes from file cabinets and tabletops. All items that found a place in his office, after Hilley's 18-year tenure at the refuge. Hilley officially retired on Jan. 3, but he'll be rambling around for another month, cleaning out his office and moving from his house at the refuge. "I thought I'd be here three years and I'm still here," Hilley said. The people and the relationship of those people with the 22,000-acre refuge is the reason he stayed nearly 19 years, Hilley said. In 1989, he left for Kansas from Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, where an adversarial relationship had developed with the local community. "It was nice to get down here and find people who appreciated the refuge and what they were doing," Hilley said. The people appreciated him too. In 1992, after the Wet Walnut Intensive Groundwater Use Control Area was implemented at Cheyenne Bottoms, Hilley approached area farmers about coming up with a voluntary water conservation plan to make sure the refuge, which has senior water rights, continued to receive water from Rattlesnake Creek without adversely impacting farmers. A partnership was formed among farmers, the Big Bend Groundwater Management District, Kansas Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a voluntary water conservation plan to avoid going through the courts. "It was a big thing at the time and we dealt with it quite a few years," Hilley said. A 12-year voluntary conservation plan was approved by the KDWR, which is coming up on the eight-year review this year. "Dave was a very reasonable and cooperative person," said Sharon Falk, Big Bend Groundwater Management District No. 5 manager. "I'm going to miss him a lot in that respect. He was just a gem to work with." During Hilley's tenure at the refuge, several construction and water conservation improvements were made. An $800,000 appropriation through Sen. Bob Dole's office was used to build a large work and storage shed, purchase farming equipment and an excavator and build an addition to the refuge office for a Visitors Center. Hilley said he requested the addition rather than a new building because it was a tough time for farmers in the area. "Farm prices were down and I didn't want them to see a big new building while they were suffering," he said. Other improvements included the addition of an environmental education classroom, migrant mile and birdhouse nature trails, the kids fishing pond, two photo blinds, an observation tower, handicapped-accessible fishing pier and waterfowl hunting blind, and installation of a public spotting scope. The refuge was also declared a "wetland of international importance" by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2002, bringing international recognition to the refuge. Hilley is proudest however, of the formation of a Friends group. "It's probably had the most positive impact in bringing recognition to the refuge and getting people to appreciate what we have here," he said. When he moved to the refuge, Hilley said he found people from outlying areas had been to the refuge but many of those who lived in Stafford County and surrounding counties had not. That lack of interest has changed and he attributes the change to efforts by the Friends of Quivira to bring people to the refuge. Hilley said he chose his profession after spending a few years in the military, working in a hospital. "I realized I didn't care about money as much as being happy in my job." He went back to college after getting out of the army, earning a master's degree in fish and wildlife. "It's been a good time," Hilley said. "I love working with the people. Refuge people are the finest in the world. It's way more than a job. I'm not just giving up a job, I'm giving up my identity. It's who I was for a long time." And the job has provided some humorous stories. People are always stopping in to ask the staff to identify birds, Hilley said. "A lady came in and described a bird with a black body and a bright yellow head. I said, Ma'am, that's a yellow-headed blackbird.' She stood back, put her hands on her hips and said, If you don't know, don't make it up.'" The bird really is named "yellow-headed black bird." The critters always came first, Hilley said. "When I got into the business, my objective was the critters would be better off than they were, when I got up in the morning. It was getting harder to do that because of the paperwork required by the job." He'll still have critters to watch over on the farm he and his wife Marty purchased near Kingman. "I'm going to be a gentleman farmer. I always wanted to farm, but I didn't want to have it as a living." Laughing, Hilley said he had to fight beavers diverting water constantly at the refuge and he has them on the small creek on his farm. "I'm just going to let them do what they want."