A species unique to Mississippi - Saturday, November 21
For the past three days we have dropped out, and hung out, at the Gulf Islands National Seashore in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The campground is quiet and natural, and it’s a great place to relax and catch up on walking, reading and thinking. Wildlife sightings in the park have been limited to egrets, herons of various types, an osprey nest minus the osprey, a rabbit, some squirrels and a small bayou alligator kids in the park have nicknamed ‘Charley’.
Bayous in the park are a brackish mixture of dilute saltwater, and saltwater is not the best habitat for alligators. It seems to stunt their growth. Charley spends most of his time in the same small pond, sleeping or otherwise floating eyes and nostril deep and pretending he is a harmless log.
The first day we saw Charlie he was basking under the edge of the small deck we were standing on. As Madolyn prepared to take his picture he suddenly turned his head, and with a snap of his jaw he came up with a ten inch turtle in his mouth. He held it there for a moment, the turtle frantically waving it’s head and legs, then he tossed it aside as quickly as he’d caught it and ambled out to open water. The lucky turtle disappeared into the mud and lived to get eaten another day.
On Saturday afternoon we took a ride, our destination the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge created solely for the protection of one particular species - the Mississippi Sandhill Crane. Mississippi Sandhill Cranes are the rarest of six subspecies of Sandhill Crane, and they are a distinct species of their own. They differ from other Sandhill cranes in color (which is always a dark brownish gray) and in the fact that they do not migrate.
Their native habitat was the open grassland ‘savannahs’ of the gulf coast, but development gradually concentrated them into lower Mississippi where they found a habitat so nurturing that the survivors never left it. This made them vulnerable to extinction as this habitat too was slowly lost to development. By the time the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 the flock was down to about 30 birds, only a few of which were breeding pairs. When the Feds decided to build Interstate 10 it looked like the cranes would be wiped out altogether.
The National Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act and it was the first lawsuit under that act to go to Federal Court. The ‘Lanes or Cranes’ controversy held up construction of the highway for several years, and it was eventually settled in 1976 when 2,000 acres of land was set aside as the first parcel in a developing refuge for the cranes. The refuge has now grown to 20,000 acres of pine and savannah, and thanks to a very successful captive breeding program, the Mississippi Sandhill Crane population has grown to over 100 birds, with some 30 breeding pairs.
Only last month 10 captive reared cranes were released into the refuge to join the flock. Chicks are raised in captivity for six months, sometimes by adult cranes and other times by humans wearing ‘crane suits’ so the chicks don’t imprint on them as human beings. The program has been extremely successful, but refuge staff has long worried that with a population so small and vulnerable a single catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina might wipe out the flock altogether.
Wildlife staff was elated when after Hurricane Katrina they found only one bird had died and one more was missing, but the rest of the flock had survived the storm in good shape. When we look at the devastation the storm caused to the human population, it seems a miracle that unprotected birds might weather it at all, much less in such numbers.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the refuge nature trail, and while our walk resulted in no crane sightings, and only two bluebird sightings, it was nevertheless an afternoon well spent in a peaceful and beautiful setting. The refuge is also home to a number of carniverous plants.
The pictures of the cranes on this page are ones Madolyn took from the pictures and videos in the Visitor Center, but they are so colorful and artistic we thought you might like to see them.