Dancing Duo

SANDHILL CRANES are cool, majestic, tall and big. As birds go this long legged marsh bird likes water and secluded places to live. They are easy to spot if you go to the right places such as bogs, marshes, wetlands or open prairies. Summer time will find them at these sites where nesting is taking place. Feeding activity can take place in cut grain farmer’s cut grain fields. Insects abound here and that is just one food item on its diet list.

If you have ever traveled toward Arizona in mid-February and pass through central New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, you will see thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Another place of gathering is in Texas at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. But if you wait until March, the birds will come closer to us Iowans when the migrating birds concentrate in the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska. I’ve been to two of the three places so noted and can attest to the wonders of huge flocks filling the air. Since Nebraska is closer it gets my photography impulses itching for more camera time.

The dancing this species enacts each spring is legendary. Wings outstretch, heads bob and weave and bow down to the mate, legs and wings lift the birds several feet into the air, and the bouncing act seems to be infectious to other cranes. The elegance of the dance has inspired people and cultures across the world for thousands of years. Aldo Leopold, the author of the book A Sand County Almanac, described them as “nobility, won in the march of aeons.”

An eon it a long time geologically speaking. And fossil records from Florida have been dated at 2.5 million years old. The fossil find was made at Florida’s Macasphalt Shell Pit. And crane-like cousins have been found in 10 million year old volcanic ash deposits in Nebraska. One outstanding fossil collection is a State Park site called Ashfall Fossil Beds. This author has been so impressed with my visits to this location that I highly recommend it to everyone, especially parents and their kids, who need a place to visit this summer. The location is 100 miles straight west of Sioux City on Highway 20, then seven miles north from the little town of Orchard, Neb.

Back to our featured creature of the day, most Sandhill Cranes need to be seven years old before they mate. Mating is a life-long commitment that can last for two decades or more. Nests are ground accumulation of sticks, reeds, cattails, sedges or bulrushes. It will grow to 30 to 40 inches in diameter and become a mound about six inches tall. Two eggs are typical and each egg is over 3.5 inches long. Incubation takes about 30 days. Young leave the nest within eight hours and follow the parent birds as the family searches for food.

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If last weeks rain fall was the result of farmers doing a rain dance, they got what they wished for. It was nice to watch and listen to water falling from the sky. I measured a total of 1.25 inches last Wednesday. That will be enough to invigorate all green growing things. And then in my files of factoids I keep for reference, I found these additional points about water. Rain is of course fresh water, not salty, and a lot of it soaks into the topsoil. Over long periods of time, water has also infiltrated deep into rock layers very far under our feet. It is hard to think of little spaces between rock grains, or other pores of earth’s rocky mantel. Water fills many of those spaces where only deep wells can penetrate to withdraw the water.

Fresh water in the ground in natural aquifers, those minute cavities within porous rock, makes an impressive total. It is estimated by geologists that there is 30 times more ground water inside rocks than all the freshwater lakes of the world. Ground water is also estimated to be 3,000 times greater than all the rivers and streams of the world combined. So how much fresh water is stored in all earth’s sources? Answer: about 2 million cubic miles worth of water and one half of that is within a half-mile of continental land surfaces. The total water supply of the world, both fresh and salt water, is 326 cubic miles. And lastly for your trivia knowledge test some day … One cubic mile of water contains about one trillion gallons. Go dance to that.

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There is another celestial dance going on right now. In fact this dance has been going since time began. We call it the first day of Summer on June 20th. It the point of our earth’s orbit around the Sun in which the northern hemisphere will see its longest day lengths and shortest night times. The Sun will arrive where it is as far north of the celestial equator. Summer officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere and winter begins in the Southern Hemisphere at 11:24 p.m. central daylight time on June 19. When we wake up on the 20th, summer will greet us. The Sun is also about as far away from earth as it will be all year, somewhere in the vicinity of 94,514,940 miles. Astronomers have a name for this point of an orbit, and it is called aphelion.

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Our Sun is a star, one of billions in the galaxies of the universe. I’m noting this only because I want to save you some money. How is that your ask? Well there is one and only one method that stars get cataloged and listed. That is through an organization called the IAU, International Astronomical Union, and they give stars numbers not names. But on the radio occasionally you will here the scam advertisement for the International Star Registry. To be blunt, it is a method to separate your money from your wallet. Don’t fall for this “star” trick. It is a deceptive trade practice.

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FATHER’S DAY is today. And conservation efforts and successes can be attributed to lots of men who at one time or another may have been called the “father of conservation. Several come to mind such as Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold and more. There is one Iowan who played a pivotal role in conservation advancement with regard to the ability to prosecute poachers of wildlife or wild plants. His name is John F. Lacey (1841-1913). He was the author in the U.S. Congress of what was called the Lacey Act of 1984 and subsequently as amended in 1900.

The Lacey Act protects both plants and wildlife by creating civil and criminal penalties for a wide variety of violations. Most notably the Act prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. The Act was signed into law by President William McKinley on May 25, 1900.

Born in West Virginia, in 1855 his family moved to Iowa to a farm in Mahaska County on the Des Moines River. Lacey had a keen interest in nature during his teenage years that stayed with him his entire life. He studied diligently on all he could read about nature and natural history. Lacey loved his family and even when serving in Congress, made time for the family to experience the outdoors together. A favorite place to go was the zoo or some park. John Lacey was acutely aware of wanton waste of natural resources and saw these things first hand in his travels. He did travel to every state and many territories enriching his mind and soul along the way. But he always looked forward to returning to Iowa.

Fish and wildlife conservation officers educate and enforce state laws pertaining to all natural resources. For the worst case scenarios where long term investigations involve many other state DNR agencies, federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officers, and a long list of crimes against the public for illegal taking of animals or plants, the Lacey Act will be specifically cited on the violation list at times when arrests are made. Without John F. Lacey’s vision, conservation would not be as strong as it is.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.