March Madness for Whooping Cranes

UPDATED: Thursday, April 3   

As expected the eight “ultralight chicks” of 2013 took off for home – Wisconsin – Monday morning, leaving their wintering site at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. On its Facebook page on Tuesday, Operation Migration, (the group that taught the chicks the migration route last fall) reported observations of OM pilot Brooke Pennypacker: the young cranes took off as a group, and they had a tailwind. Later in the day there were reported roosting in southeastern Alabama, having covered 150 miles on their first day of migration. On Wednesday OM said this: “We received a couple of PTT hits for whooping crane #1-13 last evening that place her approximately 130 miles north of the previous stopover.” Four other cranes are fitted with the sensitive PTT monitors and it is hoped more location information will soon be forthcoming.

 

Monday, March 31

Yesterday was highly anticipated, weather-wise, here in northeast Wisconsin, and it didn’t disappoint. A walk in an urban woods was full of sensory gratification: bright sunshine, mild winds from the south, and open water. Slush and mud puddles dotted woodland paths; melting snow was everywhere else, and maybe most welcome of all was the almost-forgotten fresh air smell of everything in the natural world coming out of its dormant state. It was the kind of day, I ‘m sure, that will bring more whooping cranes home to the state.

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After a long, deep freeze . . .

 

After a day like that, I’ll be surprised if we don’t learn this week that the 8 “ultralight chicks” of 2013 have taken to the air down in Florida, departing for good from their protected winter pensite at St. Marks’s NWR. There have been a mounting number of whooping crane sightings already reported in Wisconsin this month (see the websites or Facebook pages of the International Crane Foundation or Operation Migration), but the return of these youngest whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population is still awaited.

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. . . Wisconsin is thawing out fast.

 

 

And it’s always a big deal. Though it happens predictably year-after-year, there’s always something so satisfying and breathtaking, really, about the return of the year-old whooping cranes who have just learned the migration route the previous fall by flying it with the ultralights of Operation Migration. I touched on the fall trip of the Class of 2013 in my first post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, calling the guided-migration their “final exam.” If fall’s guided-migration is really their “final examine,” their unaided migration back to Wisconsin this spring is truly a Commencement Exercise – their graduation into the real world as genuinely wild beings.

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007.  The 8 young  whooping cranes of 2013, that were led to Florida by the Operation Migration ultralights, spend their nights in a protected wet pen like this one, until - on their own - they soon begin their first migration northward, back to Wisconsin.

International Crane Foundation photo of the whooping crane winter pen site in Florida; taken January 2007. The 8 young whooping cranes of 2013, that were led to Florida by the Operation Migration ultralights, spend their nights in a protected wet pen like this one, until – on their own – they soon begin their first migration northward, back to Wisconsin.

Until their flight back to Wisconsin, everything about their existence from hatching, to fledging, to fall migration, has been intensely managed by humans. (That would be mute, disguised humans, to be sure, so that the growing crane chicks, do not become imprinted on humans, or even comfortable near them.) Even once in Florida, where they are allowed to fly free after the momentous fall migration, they are still watched over by costumed-handlers, and coaxed into a netted enclosure ever night.

But one day soon, if they haven’t already, the young adult cranes of the Class of 2013, will rise into the moist gulf air with a new intention. They’ll set their course to the north and be gone. And they’ll be found back here in Wisconsin just days later. We’re waiting for them.

 

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Signs of Spring: March Means Migration

In Wisconsin the long, icy nights of February (24 out of 28 nights featured jaw-dropping “lows”, from single digits down to minus 22) tried to follow us into March – lows of minus 7, minus 13, and minus 22 all occurred within the first 6 days of the new month. But now the low temperatures are as warm or warmer than the high temperatures recorded in February. Hello, Spring!

Saying 'goodbye' to the ice blasts of Winter 2014.

Saying ‘goodbye’ to the ice blasts of Winter 2014.

Perhaps nothing says early spring more than bird migration, and the birders among us are keenly aware of little signs from common birds right outside their windows. For evidence I offer a post from Operation Migration’s Field Journal where Heather Ray describes what she’s seeing near the OM office in Port Perry, Ontario; and check out the observations from 28 commenters to the post, chiming in from Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, Georgia and all over the Upper Midwest.

Then there is the first sighting of sandhill cranes returning to Wisconsin, posted March 10th, by the International Crane Foundation on their Facebook page. When I read about it, I wondered instantly how normal it is to have cranes of any species, returning to Wisconsin this early – especially with the harsh winter we’ve had.

There’s little cause to worry, I learned from the ICF’s Long-Term Sandhill Crane Project Manager, Andrew Gossens. It’s not that unusual to see some cranes when there is still snow cover. “We generally see cranes in our long-term study when there is still a fair amount of snow on the ground,” Gossens wrote, adding that in general cranes are pretty cold-hardy birds. “Cranes can survive in snow-covered environments just fine as long as they can find food to eat and water to drink and roost in.”

A sandhill crane, pictured in an International Crane Foundation file photo.  The sandhills are much more numerous in Wisconsin than the rare and endangered whooping crane.

A sandhill crane, pictured in an International Crane Foundation file photo. The sandhills are much more numerous in Wisconsin than the rare and endangered whooping crane.

Gossens speculates that the early arriving sandhills are mostly breeding territorial adults. He said:

“The reason for some birds’ early arrival has to do with the fact that these birds are most likely returning breeding adults who want to get back to reclaim their territories before other birds can claim them for their own. Territories (places where breeding pairs nest and raise young) are a limiting factor for these birds and if a pair cannot claim a territory early, they will not be able to breed and raise young.”

And what about the much more rare – only 100 or so – whooping cranes that will soon be returning here? Through Gossens I learned that Eva Szyszkoski, the Tracking Field Manager for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership,  says that whooping crane arrivals usually coincide with general warming trends, water bodies thawing, and south winds favorable for a northward migration. That said, whooping cranes, too have been known to arrive back in Wisconsin when the marshes and ponds of their nesting grounds are still completely frozen.

Whooping Cranes have sometimes returned to Wisconsin  when ponds like this are still frozen solid.  (Photo, courtesy of International Crane foundation.)

Whooping Cranes have sometimes returned to Wisconsin when ponds like this are still frozen solid. (Photo, courtesy of International Crane foundation.)

WCEP just recently published its periodic status update for the Eastern Migratory Population – the whooping cranes that nest here in Wisconsin. Dated December 16, 2013 – February 28, 2014, the WCEP Update says these birds were distributed across Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Indiana.

Meet the 21 Newest Wisconsin Master Naturalists

You may meet some of them – the newly certified WIMNs – in Door County during the next year in the state parks, or assisting at the county’s other nature-oriented program centers and resources – mapping invasive species at The Clearing, maybe, or conducting oral history interviews for the Land Trust. Or maybe you ‘ll admire the efforts of these special volunteers in the improved bird display at Peninsula State Park nature center, or appreciate the geocaching linked to the new kiosks belonging to Door County Coastal Byways.

Jan Mills, a student in the Master Naturalist class, leads the other students along a trail at Shivering Sands, a Nature Conservancy area near Sturgeon Bay.

Jan Mills, a student in the Master Naturalist class, leads the other students along a trail at Shivering Sands, a Nature Conservancy area near Sturgeon Bay.

Wisconsin’s newest 21 Master Naturalists jumped into 2014 by making a real investment of their own dollars and considerable time in the stewardship of our natural resources.  They devoted 7 Fridays in January and February to the Wisconsin Master Naturalist course  – taking classes, doing homework, and heading out on a variety of field trips during one of the snowiest, coldest winters ever.

All the photos in this post are used courtesy of Master Naturalist course instructors Kathleen Harris and Karen Newbern.

These students earned the special certification they came for, but to keep it, they’ll spend the rest of 2014 accumulating 40 hours of volunteer service. Every year after – in order to remain a certified Master Naturalist – they’ll devote another 40 hours to service, and also add 8 additional hours of advanced training in protecting and teaching about the natural world.

The Wisconsin Master Naturalist program is a great example of ‘citizen science’ at work. Similar to the Wisconsin Master Gardner course, and to master naturalist courses in other states, WIMN is administered under the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Environmental Resources Center. The just-completed Door County class was a joint project of WIMN and The Clearing in Ellison Bay.

The Master Naturalist class in Door County, Winter 2014, pause during a field trip for a group photo.

The Master Naturalist class in Door County, Winter 2014, pause during a field trip for a group photo.

Here’s a brief snapshot – in statistics – of the class members:   as you might suspect some – 11 of them – are retired;  9 others are employed part-time or seasonally or at home, and 1 is full-time employed. All have had some college education; over half have graduate degrees. Five of them are in their 30’s, 4 in the 50’s, and 11 are over 60.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal shares “A Day in the Life of a Conservation Warden” talk. He also covered confiscation of items related to rare and endangered species.

Conservation Warden Mike Neal shares “A Day in the Life of a Conservation Warden” talk. He also covered confiscation of items related to rare and endangered species.

“Be prepared to share and build on what you already know.” Those words were at the top of the syllabus the MN students used throughout the course, and I asked one of the course instructors, Kathleen Harris, for examples of what kind of experience her students brought with them. “The knowledge base was impressive,” she told me. “Class members included a professional horticulturist, DNR Customer Service supervisor, a Chinese herbalist (medicinal), raptor rehabilitator, organic gardener, pediatric gastroenterologist, reading and science specialist, school principal . .”

As part of the "lead a hike" learning exercise Vinni Chomeau shows the group a vole hole, and ice crystals in the tunnel.

As part of the “lead a hike” learning exercise Vinni Chomeau shows the group a vole hole, and ice crystals in the tunnel.

Class members also reported in a pre-class survey some of their own life experiences that inspired them to seek the MN certification. These included hiking, hunting, camping, and sailing all over Wisconsin; backpacking in the Kettle Moraine, doing prairie restoration with Wild Ones, helping with the Ice Age Trail, reading widely about  Wisconsin, and visiting the International Crane Foundation.

Kathleen Harris, who has been the naturalist at Peninsula State Park since 1998, lead the class along with Karen Newbern, another Door County naturalist. In addition to Kathleen and Karen, the class learned about wildlife, land and water issues, and plant identification from more than a dozen other experts.

Class member Cricket Lea “searches” for “food” as a “blind bear” in a classic Project WILD activity that helps students learn about carrying capacity - the largest number of a species that can exist long-term in a particular environment.

Class member Cricket Lea “searches” for “food” as a “blind bear” in a classic Project WILD activity that helps students learn about carrying capacity – the largest number of a species that can exist long-term in a particular environment.

Other experts included professionals from the WI Department of Natural Resources, from The Clearing and The Ridges, and the Door County Land Trust. They also learned from volunteer naturalists, a poet, and a photographer, and studied the very particular geology of Door County – the rocky Niagara Escarpment – with geologists Nick Peltier and Roger Kuhns.

Class members in a group activity demonstrate a particular species which the rest of the class must guess, based on only 5 clues provided by this group.

Class members in a group activity demonstrate a particular species which the rest of the class must guess, based on only 5 clues provided by this group.

The WIMN program began in the spring of 2013. The Badger and the Whooping Crane posted about it in November,  noting there were then 72 certified WI Master Naturalists across the state. Now there are 93. The program will grow fast in 2014. Courses are underway right now at Hartman Creek State Park near Waupaca, and Wehr Nature Center in Milwaukee County, and four more are already scheduled at various other locations around the state.

Where the Birds Are: Various Whooping Crane Populations Explained

When we speak or write about whooping cranes it’s always good to know which population of the  whoopers we’re referring to. Although there are only a small number of these big, wonderful North American birds alive today (approximately 400 in the wild, and near 200 in captivity), they are spread across a variety of habitats and locations.

Some are divided among 3 captive populations, and others are in groups designated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as “non-essential experimental populations.” And 250, or more, are in the one and only self-sustaining wild flock.

So you can see, when discussing whooping crane news, it’s helpful to know which of these groups of cranes is the one from whence the news is coming. Here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, we’re most interested, naturally, in what’s happening with the whooping cranes that migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. Known affectionately at this blog as “our cranes”, or the “Wisconsin cranes,” their official designation is the tongue twister “non-essential, experimental Eastern Migratory Population (or, to simplify,  the EMP). Responsibility for the EMP cranes falls to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, written about here earlier.

An adult whooping crane pair in the Eastern Migratory Population (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP)

An adult whooping crane pair that live within the captive population at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP

But the EMP cranes – “our cranes” – are just one part of the bigger picture for the whooping crane story, and a post clarifying the various populations seems overdue. So what follows is a description of each one – population by population.

The Wild Ones

Each whooping crane in existence today is derived from the one self-sustaining wild flock – which has been brought back, literally, from the brink. The birds in this population migrate between Canada’s Wood-Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, and the Texas Gulf Coast, crossing the international border twice each year.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.  (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane. (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

This flock reached its historic low point during the winter of 1940-41 when only 15 birds were counted. Public education campaigns and conservation efforts intensified after that, and the numbers have crept back up – at a snail’s pace, but consistently upwards.

A long history of close cooperation between the wildlife agencies in both countries gets a lot of the credit for keeping the species alive.

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer.  (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada wheret he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer. (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

My source for the historical data on this Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, and for the next section on Captive Breeding is a “Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” (Curt Meine and George Archibald, 1996).  It’s online at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center; you can also access it through a link on the International Crane Foundation’s whooping crane page.

Captive Whooping Crane Populations

A new tool was added to the efforts to help the whooping crane species survive in 1967 when a captive breeding program was put in place at the USFWS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.  The Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperated to remove single eggs from the nests of wild cranes (nests usually contain two eggs) on their Wood Buffalo NP breeding grounds and transfer them to Patuxent for hatching and raising.

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

By 1975 the cranes that had hatched from the collected eggs, had begun to produce their own first eggs. In 1989 the captive breeding program was expanded to include the International Crane Foundation and in 1992 it expanded to the Calgary Zoo.

Today Patuxent and ICF remain the primary centers of captive breeding. The most recent numbers I could find, are from The Journey North website, dated August 30, 2011, which lists 75 whooping cranes in the captive population at Patuxent, including 15 breeding pair, and 37 cranes at ICF with 11 breeding pair.  Six breeding pair are listed at the Devonian  Wildlife conservation Center in Calgary, and there were also 1 breeding pair at the San Antonio Zoo, and 2 at the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.

 USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft. (Paul K. Cascio  photographer          USGS Multimedia Gallery)

USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft.
(Paul K. Cascio photographer USGS Multimedia Gallery)

The Experimental Populations

Once the captive breeding programs were well-established, the efforts for preservation of the whooping crane species shifted into a new gear.  The focus became all about restoring some of the captive-raised chicks into the wild.  But how?

Much thinking and experimentation has gone into these efforts. In their 1996 report (linked to above) Archibald and Meine wrote, “Teaching migration to young whooping cranes continues to be the most significant barrier . . .” to reestablishing whooping cranes in the wild.

Since then the method of leading an annual class of crane chicks from Wisconsin to Florida via ultralight aircraft has been perfected, and has become a major factor in building an Eastern Migratory Population of 100 birds. Although the EMP flock has – as yet – had little breeding success, it continues to grow through ultralight-led chicks. That method is now being supplemented with releasing captive-raised chicks with older cranes, too.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

In addition to this one quite successful – if incomplete – re-introduction of whooping cranes in Eastern North America, the partners of WCEP continue with efforts to establish a non-migrating flock in the wild. From 1993 – 2004, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee worked with WCEP to introduce a non-migrating flock in central Florida, but problems with drought, predators, and reproduction have brought an end to the release of new cranes into this project. Since 2011 the focus for developing a non-migrating flock of whooping cranes has shifted to the wetlands of Louisiana. In partnership with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the fourth cohort of juvenile whooping cranes from Patuxent was released at the White Lakes Wetlands Conservation Area early this year.

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)