It’s a Wrap! Nesting Season 2015

Here is a comprehensive report – by the numbers – on nesting season 2015, and a status-report on the chicks that have hatched. This report will include 1.) a wrap up of the nesting season of the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes (the EMP); 2.) the chicks that are hatching in Wisconsin at the International Crane Foundation; and 3.) the chicks that have hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center that are designated for the ultralight training program.

Number One: The EMP

The 90-plus adults of the EMP have built 37 nests in the wild in Wisconsin this year – a true record breaking number of nests. The nesting occurred in and around Necedah National Wildlife Refuge; there were 27 nesting pairs; and 10 pair built two nests. The official term for that is “renesting.”

When I last reported on this wonderful nesting season (here, on June 5th) a total of 20 chicks had hatched and 14 had been seen alive on an aerial survey flight by Wisconsin DNR pilot Bev Paulan on June 2nd. At that point one or two of the renesting crane pairs were still incubating eggs.

A subsequent report on a June 8th aerial survey makes note of two more chicks that have hatched – thus a total of 22 chicks (another record!) have hatched in the wild in Wisconsin, and the nesting season is now complete. Of the 22, there were (as of June 8th) 11 confirmed surviving.

If that 50% survival rate seems like a shocking figure to you, a cautionary reminder is probably worth considering: that survival in the wild is fraught with challenges that can’t always be easily understood or documented. It’s also worth nothing that re-introducing a species into a habitat that it has long been absent from, as is being done with the EMP, has its own challenges. That part of the equation is being studied intently by the partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership for more precise answers to chick survival rate.

Keeping Score at the International Crane Foundation

ICF tracks the progress of both the wild whooping crane nests in Wisconsin and that of the eggs laid by the captive population in residence at ICF. It regularly updates the numbers that track that progress, at the Egg Score Card on their website.

At the International Crane Foundation this year, 36 eggs were produced – 6 were broken and 14 were infertile (so far; there is still one egg that remains in the category “too soon to tell if fertile”). Of the 15 fertile eggs, 1 was transferred to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and 7 have hatched. There are 7 more to hatch (or 8, depending on the “too soon to tell” egg).

Bryant Tarr, Curator of Birds at ICF, is pleased with the way the hatching of eggs had proceeded this year. He explained that the single egg that was “transferred to Patuxent, was “an early one more suited in timing for hatching and rearing as an Ultralight bird.” As for the birds that are hatching at ICF, he said they “will be isolation reared and candidates for the DAR program. If all hatch and survive (doesn’t always happen of course)  we will end up with 10 chicks, and likely 2 of those will be held back for genetic reasons as future breeders.”

Note:  The graphic below published by the International Crane Foundation (and used by permission), is a good representation of all the steps that ICF takes to help bring about each new “next generation” of whooping cranes.



The DAR (Direct Autumn Release) method of releasing “isolation-reared” birds into the wild in late summer, near other cranes, has been used every year since 2005, with the exception of last year when there weren’t enough birds to warrant the program, which is dependent upon many hours of staff time from ICF.

I learned from Aviculturist Cyndie Gitter at a Chick Chat offered by ICF in late May that 5 staff members and 4 DAR interns will work intensely with the chicks this year, and they will have additional assistance from four crane conservation interns.

Meanwhile, at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

I also learned from Cyndie Gitter, via the Chick Chat that as of late May, 15 chicks had hatched at Patuxent. Eight of them, she said, were “currently allocated to the ultralight program.” Now, apparently there are seven, and they’ve just been formally introduced to the world by Operation Migration (which will train them and lead them on migration in the fall) as the Class of 2015.

If you follow the link above you’ll see baby chick portraits of each one: Whooping crane #’s 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, and 11 of 2015. They are already tall little birds, made of fluffy cinnamon feathers and long, twiggy legs. They are being trained at Patuxent to follow the “trike” – an ultralight without its wing. In two weeks they will be transferred to White River Marsh in Wisconsin.

Four Wisconsin Opportunities to Act for Whooping Cranes

I know of four opportunities coming up in the near future that are an invitation to put your concern for whooping cranes into action. The first one, An Evening with the Cranes at the International Crane Festival, in Baraboo, WI, is coming up fast! It’s an evening for all cranes – not just whoopers –  that supports crane research and conversation of all 15 species of cranes. Details below.

Spend An Evening With the Cranes at ICF

This is the International Crane Foundation’s annual after-hours fundraiser. If you go, you can expect to enjoy the calls of the cranes, along with gourmet food and beverages and access to all the ICF displays from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 20th – the eve of the summer solstice this year. There will be live music performed by human musicians, as well as the “crane music.” Tickets to this event are $50 each, for members of ICF, $75 for non-members. The tickets include admission to ICF all day Saturday, June 20th, and Sunday, June 21st. ICF is the only place on the planet where you can actually see – in one day – birds that represent all 15 of the world’s crane species.

The International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

The International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

Partnering organizations helping ICF offer An Evening With the Cranes include, Bekah Kate’s and the Broadway Diner, both from downtown Baraboo, Carr Valley Cheese, Con Amici Wine Bar, Monk’s at the Wilderness in Wisconsin Dells, and Port Huron Brewing Company. And that’s just few of them.

Can You Do Some Heavy Lifting to Prepare for the Class of 2015?

This next opportunity begins the same weekend – the summer solstice weekend – and will finish up in the week that follows. It will exclusively benefit whooping cranes – a handful of very specific, and very important whooping crane chicks: the Class of 2015.

These are the chicks that have just hatched from the eggs of captive whooping cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Life Research Center in Maryland; chicks that are being trained from the beginning to trust and to follow their costumed surrogate parents. These chicks are learning right now to follow motorized trikes (ultralights without their wings), and the white costumes who drive the trikes. Eventually, in Wisconsin, they’ll learn to follow the costumed pilots of the ultralights into the air.

So, what could you do for these little Class of 2015 whooper chicks? You could help Operation Migration, which manages their “flight training,” to get the Wisconsin training site prepared for their arrival at the end of June. OM’s Heather Ray described the work, which will take place in the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, and I’ll just mention a few of the tasks for which OM is recruiting volunteers.

From the archives: Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

From the archives: Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

These include: Setting up a camp near the training site, attaching a top net onto both wet and dry pens that will contain the growing chicks, mowing and raking of the runway where they will first fly, preparing the observation blind, and there are quite a few more. If you could lend a hand – and don’t mind wet feet and dirty hands for a few days – you’ll be a part of an intense and rewarding adventure, according to many who have volunteered for OM in the past. (Go here for more information, including how to get in touch.)

The Whooping Crane Festival of 2015

Looking ahead to September, craniacs from Florida to Canada- and beyond – have marked their calendars for September 10th – 13th for the 2015 Whooping Crane Festival. How about you? Events will take place near beautiful Green Lake in the middle of Wisconsin.

The weekend will include speakers, auctions, a marketplace, a welcome dinner, a chance to watch flight training with the Class of 2015, a Saturday night pizza party, a Sunday Morning Bird Walk at White River Marsh, a bus tour of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and also a Birding by Boat tour of the marsh. Details, details, and more details of all these events, and then some, are available at the link, and you will also find a link there to the registration page.

Meet a Flock of Whooping Cranes

If you’re not a member of the International Crane Foundation now, you might want to be one on September 26, 2015, so that you can enjoy all that ICF has to offer at its annual Member Appreciation Day. At this event you can join a behind the scenes tour and see ICF’s flock of whoopers during a stop at Crane City, where breeding takes place each spring. You will also get to meet field staff and learn directly from them about the work that goes on in Crane City all year long.

ICF has a population of 30 captive whooping cranes. Although a whooper pair is usually on display as part of a wonderful visitor’s viewing pavilion at ICF, Member Day is, I believe, the only opportunity to get anywhere near the whole flock. ICF is one of 5 captive breeding centers for whooping cranes in North America, and its flock is second only to Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the original site of a captive breeding program for whooping cranes.

Nesting Season 2015: So Far – So Very Good!

Nesting season this year is producing chicks; lots of them, actually, and also smiles all around, for the smiling craniacss who track the progress of the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers, and, I’m sure, for smiling partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. WCEP, which manages the EMP cranes, issued a press release in mid-May hailing 31 confirmed nests.

They called the number of nests “record-breaking” even though it was only 3 more nests than last year. But in a new Project Update that soon followed, WCEP announced more – 37 confirmed nests, and that truly is a leap forward! There have been 27 breeding pair, and 10 of the pairs have renested after their first nest failed.

Of course, with the large number of nests, the number of chicks is higher, too: last week’s report noted 13 hatched chicks of which 9 were surviving. And more were expected due to the fact that 8 of 10 renesting cranes still had active nests. Yesterday, more happy news was posted on the Facebook page of the International Crane Foundation: now 13 surviving chicks were counted in a new aerial survey by Wisconsin DNR Pilot Beverly Paulan, Tuesday, June 2nd.

The Ever-changing Chick Count

Looking for confirmation of that news, and some more information about the renesting cranes, I found Anne Lacey at ICF, who made it even better news. Here it is, straight from Anne: “Hot off the presses – the Necedah refuge staff confirmed that one pair actually had two chicks, so we confirmed 14 of 20 hatched still alive! Of 8 renests, 6 have hatched chicks! (One failed, one still to go.)”

Look closely for the two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

Look closely for the two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

So, 20 chicks have hatched, and yes, that’s a record. Last year there were 13 hatched chicks, and only one of them survived to fledge. With the 20 that have hatched in 2015 (and 14 confirmed as surviving – as of yesterday) will this year see more than one wild-hatched chick fledge and join the EMP cranes? That is everyone’s fervent hope.

Of particular interest this nesting season, it was reported that there had been 3 sets of twins, among the wild-hatched chicks. And with the new count, it’s now at least four sets. Although whooping cranes typically lay two eggs, it is considered unusual for them to successfully hatch and raise two chicks. In fact, in a Nesting Summary (published with WCEP’s Project Update), it’s clear that two of the sets of twins had already been reduced to a single surviving chick for both.

Are Black Flies Still a Problem?

Also of interest: what about the devilish clouds of black flies that have caused so many crane pair to abandon their nests in self-defense during past nesting seasons? Doug Staller, the Necedah Refuge manager, told the La Crosse Tribune that they haven’t posed much of a problem this year, because there was “only a small bloom” and it disappeared when a cold snap and high winds came in the day after they emerged.

Now the key goal for the EMP is for as many as possible of these chicks to survive to fledge. That’s when they begin to fly – about two months from now. “We are cautiously optimistic,” Heather Ray, Director of Development for Operation Migration said in the WCEP press release, “knowing that for these young birds, the next few months and years of their lives will be perilous.”

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. (Look at the legs of the crane on the right, chicks are just below.)

Stay tuned, as the facts of possibly more chicks are reported, and expect the inevitable losses, too. In the meantime, here are some biographical details about a few of the new whooping crane parents. Most are from the Meet The Cranes pages of the very educational website, The Journey North.

If you are a confirmed craniac you will of course be familiar with all the number id’s of the cranes that follow below. If you’re relatively new to the story, all these numbers may make you dizzy! But they are fairly self-explanatory: each crane is given a number when it hatches, followed by the year it hatched. If there is a “w” in front of the numbers, the crane has hatched in the wild; the rest have hatched from the eggs of captive populations.

The Cow Pond Whoopers Are a Family Now!

I’ve written before about the Cow Pond Whoopers and their Tallahassee support crew, organized by volunteer Karen Willes. This pair, #11 & 15-09 (from the ultralight class of 2009) have attracted a lot of attention for their unconventional choice of wintering ground in northern Florida. They are parents to the second wild-hatched chick (w2-15) of the year. The pair had their first nest together in 2012, but it soon failed, as did another in 2013. Last year they successfully hatched a chick! But that chick had disappeared by the end of May.


At "The Cowpond," whooping cranes 15-09, on the left, and 11-09. Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission.

At “The Cowpond,” whooping cranes 15-09, on the left, with mate, 11-09. Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission.

The new Cow Pond Chick, wild #2 of 2015, already has its own “fan club.” Karen Willes receives reports and photos from DNR pilot Bev Paulan and also from WCEP crane tracker, Eva Szyszkoski. “We craniacs are thrilled every time a survey report is posted about w2-15. I post immediately to several social media pages . . .,” said Karen. “We’re certainly hoping for successful fledging of w2-15 and many others.”

First Chick for a Wild-hatched Whooper Mom

Crane w3-10 is the embodiment of all the hopes for this Eastern Migratory Population – she is a crane who was hatched in the wild by a successful breeding pair, and is now, herself, nesting and reproducing. Her parent cranes, 4-19 and 2-12, successfully hatched and raised three female chicks to fledging and beyond, though W3-10 is the only one of the three to be living now. She has been paired with male 29-08 at least since spring of 2013. They migrate each year between Necedah and southern Indiana.

This is the first report of nesting and chicks for both w3-10, and her mate. Their twins were hatched May 17, and as of May 28 they are still seen with one of them. That chick, w8-15, is a truly wild-hatched, second generation bird: more of that is exactly what is needed now for the EMP.

The Very Important Wild-hatched Whooping Crane of 2006

There are two wild-hatched whooping cranes surviving in the EMP today. In addition to w3-10, described above, there is crane w1-06, which has the very important distinction of being the first whooping crane to hatch in the wild anywhere in the Untied States in more than a century! This now mature, 9 year-old crane is incubating a nest with her partner, 1-10.

She previously hatched a chick in 2011 that survived for only a few days, and another in 2014, which also did not survive to fledge. Of course, hopes are high that 2015 will be be a charmed year for her, and all the EMP. She and her partner had an early nest that failed and have re-nested – I believe rather late in May.

A Veteran Whooper Parent Pair 

Another renesting pair, 9-03 and 3-04, is one to watch because this successful parenting duo has hatched and raised two chicks (w1-10 and w3-13) that have survived to fledge and leave on migration with them. Since the fall of 2007 these two have been as dependable as the seasons, traveling back and forth to Florida, and more recently stopping short in Indiana, Illinois and Alabama. Each spring they are back at Necedah building a nest, and hatching chicks, and successfully raising the two birds mentioned above.

Their domestic routine seems so sedate, but for female 9-03 things weren’t always like this! Before pairing with 3-04 she had one of the most unsettled – probably the most unsettled – histories of getting lost and “wandering;” she has probably logged more flight miles than any crane in the history of this re-introduced flock of migrating whooping cranes!

In the spring of the years 2004 through 2007, she spent spring and summer, first in Ohio, and then Michigan, and next, wandering around Ontario, Vermont, and New York. In the fall of those years she was in North and South Carolina, and was captured once and relocated to Florida near other whooping cranes. In the summers of both 2006 and ’07 she was captured in New York and relocated to Wisconsin. The day after arriving in Wisconsin in 2007 she met, and quickly formed the pair bond with 3-04, and that certainly has changed her life.

The 2015 Chicks Vulnerable for Now

There are more stories like this among all the cranes out on the refuge. You can look them up yourself and read on and on at the Meet the Cranes pages kept in great detail at The Journey North website. There will surely be more stories to come – hopefully in the near future. But if you are a craniac, you are taking a deep breath right now and crossing all your fingers, because these are the long-expected wild chicks, and lots of them, that have hatched now in 2015, but as Heather Ray said above, their lives are filled with peril, especially in these vulnerable, earliest days.