What? Who? Why?

Big, beautiful, iconic, and highly endangered, the whooping crane – and the unfolding story of its survival against the odds – offers us, I do believe, one of the most memorable wildlife epics of our time. The story pairs the power of nature to endure with the creative power of humans to improve on our many intersections with the natural world.

I started The Badger and the Whooping Crane to join – and hopefully amplify in any small way I can – the chorus of voices telling this story, and in particular, to highlight Wisconsin’s considerable role, since 2001, in this drama.

In between crane news I like to tap the rich vein of news about natural resources in Wisconsin, and share as much as I can. There’s always so much to talk about. 

If you’d like more info about the blog, there is more, on the “About” page.

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Eagles Soar in Wisconsin Thanks to Endangered Species Act

Here are four good examples of why people seem to love the Endangered Species Act:

the Bald eagle – an enduring symbol of the U.S. of  A.;

the Louisiana Black bear – which long ago provided the inspiration for the toy “teddy bear;”

the magnificent Humpback whale, which can still be found in all the oceans of the world;

and the West Indian manatees, and a subspecies, the Florida manatees, found along the coasts of the southeastern U. S. states, seeking particularly warm water sites in the winter months.

In spite of such conservation successes – which have occurred with the assistance of the Endangered Species Act – that law itself is now in danger. Many of the elected Republican leaders who control the U.S. Congress are eager “to modernize” the law, in ways that its supporters believe will weaken it significantly. Some in Congress propose outright repeal to curb what they see as its abuses. One of them, Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, said the E.S.A. has “been hijacked.”

A Bald eagle, in Wisconsin. (WI DNR photo, by Brian Hansen)

Bishop, who is the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, says in his opinion, the law “. . . has never been used for the rehabilitation of the species. It’s been used to control the land.  We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act.”   

Is it possible he just doesn’t understand what the law does, or how it helps species survive? Its stated purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend.” (Emphasis added.) There is no question that this takes work and dedication from both public servants and  private citizens, alike. But the public’s willingness to support such work, by high margins, has been borne out in repeated polls and surveys over the years. (More about these polls, coming in a future post.)

A manatee cow and her calf. (USFWS photo, by Keith Ramos)

Let’s look at some more facts about those “conservation successes” listed above. Here’s the briefest of histories of the ESA’s benefit to those four species :  The Bald Eagle, the West Indian Manatee, and the Humpback Whale were all declared endangered under the predecessor of the current law: the eagle and manatee in 1967 and the whale in 1970.  The Louisiana Black bear was declared endangered in 1992.

A USFWS employee with an armful of four Louisiana Black bear cubs. (USFWS photo)

The Bald eagle was delisted in 2007 (considered “recovered” from near-extinction), the Louisiana Black bear and the majority of the Humpback Whale species, in 2016.  The West Indian Manatee was proposed for down-listing from “endangered “to “threatened” in 2016; a final decision on this is expected any day.

Now, let’s look a little deeper into the facts surrounding the decline and recovery of one particular species – the Bald Eagle. According to this US Fish & Wildlife Service fact sheet, when America was a new nation there may have been as many as 100,000 nesting pairs of Bald eagles. In 1963 only 487 pairs could be confirmed.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. (USFWS photo)

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 the species was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range  (which includes the entire North American continent). But worries about the species’ continued existence were already well-established by 1940 when the The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the plight of the eagle continued to worsen until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the dangers of widespread use of the pesticide DDT, and further research revealed that this chemical interfered with eagles’ ability to produce strong eggshells and hatch their young.

In 1972, the two-year old Environmental Protection Agency took the historic and, at that time, controversial step of banning use of DDT in the U.S. With that, and the legal protections that banned shooting and established habitat management for the species, the bald eagles began their “remarkable rebound.”  When the species was delisted in 2007, the number of nesting pairs had climbed to near 10,000.

In Wisconsin, where we now celebrate and support the endangered species within our state by purchasing a special series of endangered resources license plates,there were only 100 nesting pairs of eagles in the early 1970s. By contrast, over 1,000 nests have been counted every year since 2005; the count for 2016, was a record high of 1504. Federal funds, allotted to Wisconsin through the Endangered Species Act, combined with state funds have made it possible for the state to conduct 44 years of nest surveys. Wisconsin’s is one of the longest-running nest surveys in the country.

These involve April aerial surveys of the state to locate nests, return flights in May or June to check on nest success followed by, in some cases, some very hands-on work to band eaglets and do health assessments. Among other benefits, knowledge gained from the survey enables the DNR to give up-to-date information to landowners, companies, and communities that have an active nest on their property, so that the nest remains undisturbed throughout breeding season.

And that is a pretty good picture of The Endangered Species Act at work for eagles:  looking for nests, monitoring the nests once discovered, educating land owners to the presence of an active nest on their property, and educating the general public about the whole process.

A Hike at Horicon; Perhaps, a Whooping Crane Sighting

Here we are in the 4th quarter of a year that, for me personally, has included very little hiking – a complete failure of a resolution I made in January when the year was so new. I thought then, I would participate in the American Hiking Society’s Hike 40 challenge for 2016 (in celebration of AHS’ 40th anniversary). It sounded like an easy challenge to meet but it’s not if you don’t get out there on a trail regularly.

Recently though, I’ve found some time to just go hike – without regard to any particular challenge. Using a favorite hiking guide – John and Ellen Morgan’s 50 Hikes in Wisconsin (The Countryman Press, Second Edition), I chose to end October with a hike that the Morgans describe at Wisconsin’s wonderful Horicon Marsh.

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This amazing 33,000 acre wetland an hour northwest of Milwaukee offers so much for so many creatures – both the wildlife, and humankind. In this blog post, I’ll describe the marsh, and then our hike. Near the end, I hope you won’t miss my conversation with Erin Railsback, who is on the staff for Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, about current conditions at the marsh..

The Horicon Marsh is one of the largest intact freshwater wetlands in the U. S.  It is the largest cattail marsh here in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Since 1990, Horicon Marsh has made the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance. It is a mecca for wildlife, including over 300 species of birds. To those of us in Wisconsin, Horicon is probably best known as a major staging area (a known location where migrating birds gather to rest and feed), in particular for Canada geese, mallards, and sandhill cranes.

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Horicon is both a State Wildlife Area (the lower one-third of the marsh is owned and managed by the WI Department of Natural Resources) and a National Wildlife Refuge (the northern two-thirds, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,  was established as Horicon NWR in 1941). Between them, these entities provide recreational opportunities for human visitors that include fishing, hunting, trapping, canoeing, hiking, biking, birding, and observation blinds for wildlife viewing and photography. If you just want to enjoy the great outdoors, you can find a way to do it at Horicon.

Hiking there was an easy choice for both me and my spouse because it’s a Wisconsin resource we both believe we know a lot about in a superficial way, but have little real-life experience of it. This would be the perfect time, we thought – a calm, mostly-sunny, late fall day – to get to know it better. (And it was.)

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Plus, for me, there was the knowledge that at least a few of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes are often seen there. I had this vivid picture – a wish, really – in my imagination: that we might walk by a field on our hike, or even drive by one in the area, in which a whooping crane or two would be foraging – their large white shapes, distant, but unmistakable; against a green background. (More about that, below.)

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The Morgans advise that the 3.4 mile hike on the Redhead, Red Fox, and Egret Trails is rated a “2” out of 5 for difficulty, with just slight, occasional hints of vertical rise. “After climbing a short hill along a wide, crushed limestone trail, you will reach the crest to find one of many great views along this trail,” they write,    . . . The view stretches in every direction.” We felt that was just as described, but we also noted throughout the afternoon that there were fewer birds – some ducks and other waterfowl, but not to the degree that we thought Horicon was known for in the fall. Still, it was the last Sunday in October, and our first thought was that we were too late for the peak of migration. Or maybe, because it’s been an unusually warm season, it hadn’t happened yet? Indeed, I later learned that is exactly the case this year.

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“Pleasant,” is the word I’d use to describe, everything about the day, and certainly all the views to come along the Horicon trails. The Egret Trail, portion of our hike, did not afford full access to the floating boardwalk that extends out into part of the Marsh – sections of the boardwalk are undergoing reconstruction, and another visit to the finished hiking trail over water would definitely be worthwhile. After hiking the three trails, we felt a new familiarity with Horicon Marsh, but a quick look at this Visitor Map reminded me how vast the entire Marsh is, and how much more there will be to explore another time.

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Best of all, though was this experience:  returning from the Egret Trail, an expanse of field opened up to our right – we were somewhat above it and suddenly I thought I just might be looking at the tall white shape I had so hoped to see! Actually, it was more like looking at the head of a white shape, and not against that green background of my imagination but in the tall dry grasses of the fall.

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We halted right there, watching for a while as that bird came in and out of our view, and trying to focus an old, untrustworthy pair of binoculars on its movements. (Reminder to self:  Don’t go into the field looking for birds – even very large ones – without good optical equipment.)

This bird was far away, but not so far, as to be just a mere speck of white. We could clearly make out the shape of a head, and at times, the long curving neck. With a spotting scope we likely would have seen the red-patch on the top of this bird’s head, if in fact it was a whooper. “Maybe it’s an egret?” suggested my hiking partner.  But just then, the bird raised “his” head to call, as whooping cranes do – this is something we could see really well with our not-great binoculars, and clearly hear with our own ears.  And that settled it for me.

Later in the week, when I caught up with Erin Railsback, who is the Visitor Services Coordinator for the refuge, I received confirmation, that “Yes,” there has definitely been a single male whooper observed on the refuge recently. She said that the bird has been consistently observed in the general area where we believed we saw, and heard him. She told me that between staff at the International Crane Foundation and biologists of the refuge, his whereabout were usually known.

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As for my question about the peak of migration – had we missed it? – not at all!  “This is a very unusual year,” Erin reminded me. Like everyone in Wisconsin, I’ve been aware we’re having a mild fall, but I haven’t been keeping track of just how mild.  “When we have a day that’s over 70 degrees in November, that is unusual,” Erin stressed; she added that, “We have a pretty good number of ducks here now, but not the geese at all.”

It was not so warm, the day of our hike, but during the week that followed, temperatures had climbed, and more warm days were still expected. So if you are someone who would be interested in this annual phenomenon of many thousands of Canada geese and sandhill cranes migrating through Horicon, stay tuned; it is still to come this year. As far as just ‘when,’ Erin said, as long as the geese and the cranes can find food and their summer habitat continues to meet their needs, they will stay there.  It’s not just dropping temperatures, she said, that cause them to migrate, but the shorter days too, and soon,  the migration will be here, she predicted;  watch for more fall-like conditions, and stay tuned. I would just add that the home page of the Horicon NWR gives a Fall Migration update. I’ll be checking that.

A Late Summer Treat: The Princeton Whooping Crane Festival

There’s a Whooping Crane Festival taking place in Wisconsin this weekend, and if you’re looking for a late summer treat, you won’t be disappointed if you take a drive to Green Lake County and check it out. It started today and continues through Sunday with a great variety of activities, including a special tour of the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Some of the other planned events include a silent auction, an artisans’ and vendors’ market, activities for children, birding opportunities, and a one-hour canoe trip in a hand-built replica of a French fur trader’s canoe. Here’s the schedule, for more info. For craniacs who can never get enough information regarding the progress of our beloved whooping cranes – as well as news of other avian species – there is a full line up of Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon talks. And they are:

Patricia Manthey, WI DNR avian ecologist and conservation biologist (retired in 2014), will speak, 9-10 a.m., about the recovery of the Trumpeter Swan, a conservation success story that spanned two and half decades. Trumpeter swan nests are now found in 24 Wisconsin counties.

Summer wildflowers are everywhere along the back roads of Wisconsin.

Summer wildflowers are everywhere along the back roads of Wisconsin.

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Beverly Paulan, WI DNR pilot, and Joe Duff, pilot and co-founder of Operation Migration, are speaking at 10:30 a.m., and will have plenty of stories to share! Their subject, the role played by aviation in Wisconsin’s wildlife conservation programs; not only for the whooping crane and trumpeter swan, but also in tracking wolf packs, and deer herds, and conducting bird surveys.

Patricia Fisher, wildlife rehabber, and owner of The Feather Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in New London, WI, will talk at 1 p.m., about her 30 years of raptor – and other critter – rehabilitation. She once told an Appleton newspaper interviewer “The most rewarding part of wildlife rehab to me is to be a part of their world. Something not everyone gets. Releasing them is phenomenal, but just to be with them is incredible.”

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At 3 p.m., Joe Duff will return to the podium to address the topic foremost in the minds of most craniacs: the transition taking place this year in the whooping crane reintroduction. He will discuss how the new protocol involving “adoption of the new cranes by the former ultralight migration students,” is evolving, and how it might help the Wisconsin crane population’s chances of becoming a self-sustaining flock.

As stated above, The Princeton Whooping Crane Festival, and your drive to get there, just might be the perfect end-of-summer activity you’re seeking.

A Status Update on Wisconsin’s Whooping Cranes in Transition

What’s new with the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes at the end of the summer of 2016?

At least 90 whooping cranes had been confirmed in Wisconsin by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership as of August 1st. Four EMP birds were in Illinois, one was in Michigan, and the location of five other EMP birds is not confirmed, making for a maximum population size of 100 individual birds.

Nesting season this year was a now familiar pattern of some very good news, but not enough. There were many nests (46 total, by 29 pairs) some black fly abandonment early, followed by renests, a lot of chicks hatched (23), but only 2 or 3 survived to fledge. As of September, only one wild chick, #w7-16, survives. It was captured and banded on September 1st.

The Summer of Transition

The biggest news for the EMP this summer is its transition away from human intervention — human caretakers in costumes training newly hatched captive-bred chicks for eventual release into the wild  — in favor of using adult parent cranes in the captive population in all interactions with the new chicks. This means a decided shift away from costume-rearing of cranes, and also, that there will be no more ultralight-guided first migrations by the Operation Migration team.

Nonetheless, the work that began in 2001 with 20 captive-bred, costume-reared, ultralight-led whooper chicks, will continue. And publicized commitments from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) and key founding partners are reassuring that the partnership remains in tact.

This USFWS photo of an Operation Migration ultralight and young whooping crane chicks, is the human-chick interaction that is no longer approved.

This USFWS photo of an Operation Migration ultralight and young whooping crane chicks, is the human-chick interaction that is no longer approved.

But why exactly is the changing focus necessary?

By now, I’m certain that everyone who follows this chapter of the whooping cranes’ story knows the ultralight flights have been stopped. And that adult cranes will be used to teach migratory behavior. But here is the story behind those facts, to the best of my knowledge, with links to official documents that explain it too.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is the WCEP partner legally responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, and for a number of years now, it seems to have been focused on only one aspect of the Eastern Migratory Population – what they identify as its “critical lack of reproductive success.” USFWS staff involved in the whooping crane reintroduction believe that less human-intervention in the rearing and releasing of captive-bred chicks into the EMP could solve this problem. Here is the USFWS statement affirming its continued commitment to the Eastern Migratory whooping cranes.

At a meeting of all the partners, convened in January of this year, the USFWS decision to discontinue the ultralight-led migration was accepted. Although the partners did not vote on it, an agreement to shift the focus to “more natural methods” was reached through “a collaborative process that engaged all the partners.”

Will Poor Reproduction be Solved?

While reproduction of chicks in the wild remains a tough obstacle blocking, for now, the EMP’s path to becoming a sustainable population, many previous goals for this population have been successfully met, as this fact sheet from the International Crane Foundation makes clear. The population has grown to 100 wild birds, they successfully migrate to the southern U.S., and return to nest in Wisconsin, and the number and locations of nests is growing.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

The shift in focus now requested by USFWS is only possible, reminds the International Crane Foundation fact sheet, “because of the great success of the program thus far.” It further affirms, “WCEP can meet this challenge,” and that ICF is committed to being a leader in the work to come.

What’s Next?

Next week The Badger & the Whooping Crane will report on what the actual shift from human-mentors to adult crane guides is looking like at this point in time, and how Operation Migration’s role is shifting from ultralight leading, to monitoring and managing the EMP in the field. Before that, though, a report on the whoopers of 2015.

Back to Blogging: A Personal Note from a Mother Hen

I’ve been missing for a while from The Badger and the Whooping Crane – virtually no new posts for waaaay too long. Now I’m back to blog, but think perhaps an explanation for the absence should be offered..

Of course I wanted to write about the spring migration back to Wisconsin made by at least 90 of our wild whoopers; and I certainly did not want to miss the nesting season, and the hatching of new chicks in the wild, that followed soon after! But I was busy elsewhere, focused like a laser on preparations that were being made for the marriage of my own youngest chick. I was fully distracted, you might say, being a mother hen.

Desperately Distracted by the Details

Instead of whooping crane posts, about the only writing I was doing was lists of wedding prep to-do’s:  lists of things to be printed, and things to be planted; things to be shopped for, calls to be made, appointments to be kept. And a list with no end of clean-up, fix-up, home improvement “musts.” There was a wedding party migrating our way, and they would need a place to roost. Of course, there was a full committee worrying over all these details, too, but when you are the mother hen, well . . . .

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(Photo by Evan Fedorko)

Before we knew it the day was here, bringing proof that time and effort expended in the service of a worthy goal, is time well spent. On a perfectly gorgeous August afternoon, our chick and her mate became a pair, pledging their love and fidelity in a woodland glen, in the presence of a very large flock of happy friends and family.

Then this new couple, and the happy crowd with it, celebrated through the evening and into the night in a large, open, fairy-tale-like tent overlooking the prairie of a state historical park, a river in the distance. It was exactly the day this pair had wanted.

A Mission Accomplished, Another Restated

So, mission accomplished! And now, happily back to the 2-part mission I still believe The Badger and the Whooping Crane should encompass: first, helping to tell the tale, unique and unusual as it is, of Wisconsin’s re-introduced population of wild whooping cranes, and second, celebrating our state’s strong conservation ethic; its history of natural resource protection. It is Wisconsin’s natural gifts, after all, that sustain the whoopers, and every other living thing here, humans included.

What’s Next?  

Watch for the next post that will offer a review of the current status of our Eastern Migratory Population of  whooping cranes at the end of the Summer of 2016,  a summer that has been called “transitional” for this effort to reintroduce the whooping crane species to Eastern North America. A second post will include an update of each of the 18 whoopers of 2015 – all that entered the population, whether as Parent-reared, Direct Autumn release, Ultralight-trained, or wild hatched – where they migrated to, where they are now.

 

 

 

Roy Lukes in the Natural World; Living the Life He Loved

The Peninsula Pulse delivered the unwelcome news earlier this week that Door County’s extraordinary nature writer, Roy Lukes, has died. The subject line in my email from the Pulse was direct:  “Columnist Roy Lukes Dies at 86.”

The email itself elaborated – “His joy came in nature. . . Roy Lukes,  renowned nature writer, naturalist, photographer, teacher, and Peninsula Pulse columnist, died June 26th, after a long illness. . .” Roy began publishing columns of his nature writings in the Door County Advocate almost 50 years ago. He offered them to the Advocate as a volunteer, and apparently was so happy to write and share his knowledge of Door County’s plants, trees, birds, and other wildlife, that he needed no financial reward.

Eventually though, payment was offered, and Lukes branched out in his publishing efforts throughout Northeastern Wisconsin.  And then there were books:  Toft Point, a Legacy of People and Pines, and Tales of the Wild, a Year with Nature – to name just two.

A Naturalist of Many Talents; Roy Lukes Earned His Reputation

Over time, Roy Lukes approach to sharing his nature knowledge branched out too – his teaching, both in the classroom and in the field, his photography, as well as his published writing all earned him a reputation.  He became widely known as a contemporary light in Wisconsin’s strong tradition of producing naturalists. And he earned state-wide recognitions such as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology (2015), and the Chancellor’s Medallion of the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh in 2004 (to highlight two, out of so many more).

Madeline Harrison, co-owner and editor of The Peninsula Pulse, has said that when Lukes’ columns began to appear in The Pulse in 2008, they brought both readers and a new level of credibility to her publication.  That seems to me about the highest praise a publisher can offer a writer – ‘he  brought us readers, and made us credible!’

The natural world of Door County, so well- loved and described by Roy Lukes: Winter

No matter how unwelcome such news may be, when someone in their ninth decade of life passes away, it doesn’t come as a shock, exactly. but still, a most unpleasant surprise. I didn’t know Lukes, but I knew his columns over the years, and in particular, those in the Pulse which seemed to be both regular and robust right up to the moment I learned in my email that the author of these columns has died.

A Nature Writer’s Life: Wide-eyed Boyish Awe

Somehow, I’d missed this:  Nature Boy: The Wonder of Roy Lukes.  It’s a great tribute, with a behind-the-scenes look into the life of Roy, written by the Pulse’s Chicago-based contributing editor Myles Dannhausen, Jr.  It was published early in May this year, and an editorial note preceding the article offered a heads-up – Roy was engaged in a cancer battle.

 Spring.

Spring.

Myles condenses several key chapters in Roy’s life, that I haven’t even mentioned here. In particular he writes about what the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor meant to Roy Lukes’ life, and what Lukes’ was to the Sanctuary.  And the “chapter” in which Roy Lukes, meets and marries Charlotte, his “partner in nature,” and “editor for life.”

And Myles explains in some detail the winning combination that animated Roy Lukes’ writing:  “Roy delved into the science behind the habits of birds, the growth of trees, the delicacy of a yellow lady’s slipper, but it is his personal touch that enthralled his devoted readers, a wide-eyed boyish awe of the natural world. . .”

Summer.

Summer.

Another Pulse article worth a moment of your time (there are quite a few; as you can tell by now, Roy Lukes, was an interesting subject as a naturalist, as well as an accomplished practitioner) is The Nature of Roy Lukes.  In this, former Pulse writer Carole Thompson sat down for an interview with him and a picture emerges of his evolution as a teacher, naturalist, writer, AND reader! Find out what nature writers are read and valued by their peers.     

Early Fall.

Early Fall.

The Class of 2015, Free & Wild, Headed North

The Class of 2015 has officially established its credibility as a flock of truly wild birds, flying off on their own from their protected space at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. With that they began their first wild journey north. Never again will they roost within human made shelters, nor eat foods provided for them from the human world.

Follow the migrations of all the birds of the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers at the Field Journal of Operation Migration. Many have already returned to Wisconsin, and the rest are moving along the flyway. And read on, right here, to learn where the Class of 2015 has been seen on its migration journey.

This group of five (one of the class had departed earlier with adult cranes) departed St. Marks on Wednesday, March 30th, flying up together, as reported in the Field Journal, the birds “disappeared over the treeline – heading north!” By Sunday, they were in western Kentucky.

The Class of 2015 Photographed in Illinois!

On Thursday, April 7, the five, still traveling together, were captured in one great photo by a newspaper photographer for the LaSalle News Tribune in North Central Illinois. The five were staying at an Illinois River wetland, the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, on this stopover.

The photo came my way thanks to a Google News Alert for “whooping cranes.”  I get one or two everyday and often they link to whooper stories that are already well-known, or else not pertinent to the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). But yesterday’s link to this photo of the Class of 2015 birds and the accompanying story in the News Tribune was the rare, thing: genuine news about birds of the EMP!

It was not at all apparent in this story, however, that these were the Class of 2015 birds, or any of “our” Wisconsin cranes. But The Field Journal was reporting the group of five in nearby Putnam County IL. So I put a question, and the news story link, in a tweet to Operation Migration. Seconds later OM confirmed in a reply, that yes, indeed, these were the recently migrated Class of 2015 birds.

“They’ve since moved on,” the tweet concluded. To Wisconsin? There’s no confirmation of that yet, but I believe we’ll  learn that soon.

This is a photo of the final flight of the Class of 2015 on its ultralight-led migration. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permissioin)

This is a photo of the final flight of the Class of 2015 on its ultralight-led migration. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

The Irony in the News Story

Lovely as any media attention is for the endangered whooping crane species, craniacs familiar with the Eastern Migratory Population, might scratch their heads at some of the statements included in this report from Illinois. A quote from a wetlands manager that there are few modern records of whooping cranes stopping in Illinois, for one. Whoopers in the EMP – currently about 100 birds – have used various wetland areas in the state, and neighboring Indiana, as migration stops consistently since 2001.

A whooping crane pair at Patoka NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

A whooping crane pair at the Patoka River NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

Moreover, the LaSalle News Tribune missed the fact that for fifteen years LaSalle County has been one of Operation Migration’s stopovers as it has led class after class of young cranes on their first migration to Florida each fall since 2001. It does make mention of OM’s fifteen year involvement in the effort of “reestablishing the eastern population with hand-reared whooping cranes,” noting it had been “shut down this winter by federal wildlife officials,” who are now calling for “less human interaction.”

Such a Complex Story to Report

This is a complicated story, and always has been. The reintroduction of a wild species has so many parts to it, all of them complex, and it can be most difficult for a reporter, in a single story, to convey clearly all that’s involved. It seems obvious to me that the photographer, the writer, and his sources were excited about their five living, breathing, whooping crane visitors.

But how ironic: no recognition that these bird celebrities were the best and newest examples of Operation Migration’s (with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership) “hand-rearing” work; right under their noses. No realization of what the effort to reestablish this population has thus far accomplished; and that it continues.    

Mother Nature, Spring Whimsy, and Whooping Crane Arrivals!

We love Mother Nature in Wisconsin, but recognize that she has multiple personalities, particularly evident when it comes to weather phenomena. So, apparently do cranes (love Wisconsin’s natural gifts), and they seem to thrive here in so many of our weather systems. Perhaps, though, it is the warmer winter that most of us in the northern U.S. are experiencing this year, that has brought us returning sandhills as early as February 21st.

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (A Wikimedia Commons photo)

Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (A Wikimedia Commons photo)

Then, on March 15th, Operation Migration’s Field Journal reported that there already were “a handful of whooping cranes back in Wisconsin, including #16 and 18-11 at Horicon Marsh.” This news was followed two days later by a report about a pair of whoopers who were dubbed “The Royal Couple,” by last summer’s crane cam watchers. That couple is home again, at White River Marsh, it is believed.

That pair, 4-year old male (#4-12) and a now 2-year old female, #3-14, seemed to bond last summer, and stay close to the White River Marsh flight training center, always watching the Class of 2015 chicks. While it is assumed they are still together, a visual confirmation is needed. Her return to White River Marsh on March 17th, has already been confirmed by the satellite tracking device that she wears. He does not have one, so his presence with her isn’t certain.

And Welcome News about the Cow Pond Whooper

Another confirmation came this week – special news for all the new (and seasoned) craniacs who follow “the cow pond whooper,” (#11-09), when he is in Tallahassee. Karen Willes posted the first confirmed sighting of him since he was last recorded at there, on February 19th. Karen, who has organized a citizen science monitoring project around 11-09 in Florida, received confirmation from staff at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge that he has now been observed on the refuge. And he’s back just in time for Mother Nature to display her whimsical side.

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where is affectionately known as Big Bird. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where is affectionately known as Big Bird. Last seen in Florida on  February 19th, he has now been confirmed back at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin.  (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Whimsy might seem a perfect match for spring, but Mother Nature delivered hers with a twist:  after denying a White Christmas to Wisconsinites — a welcome weather feature here in December — she has now done her best to cover the new spring growth, all over the state, with cottony, white snow for Easter. But the practical side of Mother Nature will probably win out before Easter Sunday, and she’ll allow temperatures in the 40s to melt most of the white stuff. What isn’t gone on Easter will surely disappear as temps in the 50s and 60s next week – still March – will delight us before Mother Nature brings back the 30s for the first weekend in April.

When Will the Class of 2015 Arrive?

Temperature fluctuations or not, what we definitely can count on from now through April is a season of increasing arrivals and sightings of the approximately 100 whooping cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population. Most highly anticipated will be the return of the six cranes of the Class of 2015 – the cranes that only recently completed their first migration south by following the ultralight airplanes of Operation Migration.

They know the way, and they’ll make it back; but until they finally fly into the sky over St. Marks NWR, with purpose and resolutely turn north, there will be a lot of impatient watching and waiting. Then, until their signals are heard over Wisconsin, there will be a lot of collective breath-holding among those who have trained them, watched them, and rooted for them.

The Privilege of Waiting with the Chicks

“I am privileged,” wrote Beverly Paulan, Wisconsin DNR pilot, at OM’s Field Journal recently. “I have been witness to every possible personality quirk of these amazing birds from extreme shyness and submission to the most aggressive of dominant chicks.”

Using her winter leave time to volunteer for OM, and wait with the Class of 2015 for migration to call them north. Bev at times donned a white crane costume to do maintenance in their large open winter pen at St. Marks NWR. And she has written about the many privileges this fulfilling work has brought her. Among them, is this amazing scene:

“As they circled up and out of the pen, I quickly realized they were flying to me! Five elegant, mostly white birds gently parachuted down all around me . . . but it was 8-15 that grabbed my eye. She walked directly in front of me and started to dance. She jumped, pirouetted, bowed, spun . . .As I stood watching I realized that never again will I witness such stunning beauty. Never. . .” Read Bev’s full account at the Field Journal.

Tracking Migration by Satellite

In fact, though, it’s been reported in the Field Journal this week that one of the six cranes of the Class of 2015, is already on migration – #2-15! This young crane left the pensite at St Marks NWR in the company of four adult whooping cranes last Tuesday. These migrating cranes include 3 males – #5-12, #4-13, and #4-14; a 2-year old female, #7-14, and crane chick 2-15, also a female.

Only the two females are fitted with PTT devices that allow them to be tracked by satellite, and the tracking reports that Operation Migration has been getting show they have already covered enough miles to put them more than half the way home to White River Marsh.  Because none of the male birds have the good tracking devices it cannot be known for sure that they are still a group of five until someone confirms this visually. Probably that won’t happen until sometime after they get back to Wisconsin.