Friday, June 22, 2012

Broken Toe: Part I

Yellowstone Stone National Park, USA

Introduction:  We’ve been aware of sandhill cranes nesting in this immediate area since 1998.  At first they nested in the marshy swale just to the east of Floating Island Lake, but that nest was abandoned when wolves killed an elk just a few feet from their nesting platform.  The cranes then moved to the far inlet of Floating Island Lake and nested there for four years, but drought kept dropping the water level and soon their bullrushes were too exposed to the land.  By then a tiny bit of emergent vegetation was appearing out in the middle of the lake.  The cranes harvested organic material from the bottom of the pond and soon had a nesting platform built where it can be easily observed from the road.  Several years of wonderful crane viewing followed.  
At first we didn’t know how to tell the male crane from the female except that the male is usually larger.  Then we found out the two can be separated when they preform the ‘unison bugle.’  In 2006 I noticed the female has a bent toe -- the inside toe on her left foot.  We named her “Broken Toe.”

April 13

Floating Island is so quiet.  Not a duck to be seen, nor a crane.  When we were here Yesterday we spotted Broken Toe feeding along the eastern slope a few feet from shoreline.  Every so often she paused and rattled a rather low, plaintive call -- several times.  Only an echo responded.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought the echo was a response.  She would call and call and call, then go back to feeding.  
This morning the pond has several voices speaking to me.  A flicker calls from the top of the snag where they nest.  A red-winged blackbird is proud to let the world know which patch of bullrushes is his.  I hear a raven croak off in the distance.  Even farther I hear the unison bugle of cranes -- a pair.  Even the wind talks as it gusts in chilly blasts.  
Usually the call of sandhill cranes brings joy to my heart. When we arrived at Floating Island Broken Toe was no where to be seen.. but now,  an hour later she comes walking over the rise, still calling her plaintive bugle.  Where is her mate?

It is the same pattern as yesterday.  Many calls, then she feeds for a while.  Twice I’ve counted the frequency of her plaintive calls: once was 10 times per minute; once 13 times per minute.  Calling lasts twenty minutes or more. 

Oh how I hope to see a speck come parachuting down, out of the bright blue sky.  I expect there would be a very vocal reunion.  If not ... will her calls attract another lone bird?  We know cranes to find new mates, but how soon?

April 14:  

It has been a fascinating day at Floating Island.  Repeated bugling has filled the depression that holds Floating Island Lake.  The tall cliffs behind the pond hold the sound in.  Eventually we realize there are four sandhill cranes!  We look carefully and find Broken Toe.  When her foot is up and her body is either facing us or away from us we can spot the toe.  From her side the toe is virtually impossible to see. 

The cranes all seem unsettled.  Gradually we form an opinion, but can’t be sure exactly what is happening.  Two of the cranes are obviously a mated pair -- they unison bugle together. Broken Toe is there and a fourth crane.  Is the fourth a year old youngster?  We are quite sure the fourth crane is not Broken Toe’s mate.  There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the two. 

Definitely harassing between the cranes.  Several chases, even in the air.  Dale took an aerial shot which clearly shows a crane almost biting Broken Toe’s leg!  It is becoming apparent the mated pair want to take over the pond.

No more plaintive calling by Broken Toe, but no sign of a mate either.  It has been an amazing morning.  Over and over again bugling has filled this little valley.  The cranes are here sometimes and often fly to the marshy swale to the east where we can still hear them.  Very unsettled!


  1. What an amazing experience to hear and see them. Your photos and artwork are fantastic.

  2. wonderful photos and drawings here. Those birds are amazing. I would love to see something like them in person. I have been having internet problems and hopefully they are fixed so I will be back to really read your blogs better soon.