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.

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