Ask the Experts: News for Craniacs

The Wisconsin DNR held an Ask-The-Experts online chat this week about the whooping cranes of Wisconsin, (officially known as the Eastern Migratory Population, or the EMP).  This was easily the liveliest Asked the Experts chat I’ve witnessed, and indeed I found out later the DNR said there were 211 participants during the live chat, and 106 people (a number that will increase) who accessed within 24 hours after it was live.

These are “amazing numbers,” according to the DNR’s own assessment.  There were 137 questions submitted and answered by the following experts that were on duty for this chat: Davin Lopez, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin DNR; Karis Ritenour, whooping crane field technician at the International Crane Foundation; Anne Lacy, crane research coordinator for ICF; and Heather Ray, the director of development for Operation Migration.

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.

This DNR-hosted chat is a great service, which recurs every fall, and I think in the spring, as well. You can learn a lot about the EMP and the people who manage it, the partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (or WCEP), just by tuning in. No whooping crane question is ever too simple, nor too complex.

Except for this chat: there was one question that surfaced repeatedly at the beginning of the hour, and was always deferred. Here’s the explanation:

Mum’s the Word on Operation Migration’s Petition to USFWS

It’s no surprise that many people who tuned in to ‘ask the experts’ were eager for new information about the future of Operation Migration and the Ultralight Light program. The recent public posting by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of a new vision statement which recommends an end to the ultralight program, has received quite a bit of attention – not just on Facebook, but also in the mainstream media. Half a dozen questions about it were quickly submitted.

“I would imagine that DNR does not share the same sentiment that the FWS has . .” began one, to which Davin Lopez replied that WCEP partners will be discussing this in January, at the start of the group’s 5-year review. “Much to discuss,” he added, as he would to several more queries about Operation Migration’s achievements.

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)

Heather Ray, who is OM’s Director of Development and also a co-chair of WCEP’s Communication and Outreach Team, wore only one ‘hat’ for the hour – her WCEP one. She met each question about OM’s expertise and about the online petition campaign, (which OM launched as a way for its supporters to reach USFWS) with determination to focus only on WCEP. Six or seven questions that tried to probe the issue were all met with “we’ll be discussing this in January.”

So, the Audience Turned to Other Topics

And the questions flowed. Just a few examples follow:

Q:  Is there still an effort to establish a non migratory flock in the south? A: Yes, in Louisiana; it’s only a few years old, but there are 37 birds, and there were 4 nesting pair this year.

Q:  How do young cranes without parents find their way south? A: Direct Autumn Release birds and Parent-Reared birds are released near adult whoopers and sandhills with the goal of having them follow the adult birds on migration. Now and then, individual birds will strike out on their own, and in those cases they have migrated successfully and returned to Wisconsin.

What is the Rate of Success for the EMP?

There were a lot of questions about the EMP, and how it – this reintroduction of a migrating flock of whoopers – is really working. Just what is the rate of success?

Q: “Are we seeing some progress, and if so, where is the greatest success, if that can be measured yet?” Karis Ritenour answered: “This year’s hatching numbers were extremely encouraging. More birds are nesting, more eggs are hatching, and even having three fledged chicks this year was a step forward. It is difficult to know what is “expected” because there is so much we don’t know about the natural flock as well.”

What is the Size of the EMP?

More specific questions include:

Q: What is the current size of the EMP? A: There are 92 birds now. When the eight birds for this year’s Direct Autumn Release are fully on their own, they will be added to the total. (They will be fully released very soon, but until then they are monitored, kept safe at night, and receive supplemental feeding.) When the six young whoopers that are currently following the ultralights to Florida are fully on their own – that won’t be until they leave on their own for migration north next spring – then they too will be added to the total count of EMP whoopers. “These cranes use a large range of wintering locations across the southeast,” added Heather, who answered this question.

Why Don’t More EMP Whooping Cranes Migrate to Florida?

This is something that I had been wondering about – so few of them seem to return to Florida on migration – and others were asking about it. The Florida gulf coast was chosen for the EMP in winter because it replicates the gulf coast environment of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the wild flock has spent winters for all its known history.

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 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.)

But for the past 4 or 5 years, quite a few of the EMP cranes have spent the winter months in places as varied as southern Indiana, South Carolina and Alabama. Does the whooping crane partnership – WCEP – think that’s ok, we’re wondering? And the answer is, Yes! They’re doing just fine in the winter locations they choose. “By taking them to the Florida coast we show them the entirety of the flyway,” Anne Lacy explained, “and they can choose where they prefer on subsequent migrations.”

Whatever Happened to the Class of 2014?

Another question that has some craniacs scratching their heads, and worrying over, involves the ultralight-trained whoopers of 2014. Because of an extreme weather problem these birds had to be crated in Wisconsin and driven to Tennessee a year ago. Will they need to be “captured and crated again,”someone asked?

Not at all, we were assured. They’ve been on their own, wandering around Wisconsin through the summer months – “wandering” is the commonplace term for expected young adult crane behavior. The WCEP partners have complete confidence that these birds will decide for themselves where and when to migrate – and will certainly return to Wisconsin next spring.

The Next Post

This report is so long, and since there are several more topics that generated several questions, The Badger and the Whooping Crane will continue coverage of Ask the Experts in the next post.  It will cover questions about the toll predation is taking on the EMP, and about the prospects for future nesting in the “Wisconsin Rectangle.”  And there will be updates on two whooping cranes – first Whoopsie, then Kevin – that made news in 2015.

USFWS Would Ground the Ultralights?

As Operation Migration pilots moved an important step closer to a successful 2015 fall migration season today – leading their six cooperative whooping crane colts out of Wisconsin and on to Illinois – a co-partner with them in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) has made public its new vision for the partnership.

That vision seems to include a plan to end Operation Migration’s popular and highly visible ultralight-led migration in the near future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asserting the ultralight program is no longer helping achieve the goal of a sustainable eastern whooping crane population. Joe Duff, the CEO of Operation Migration, has responded with a statement of his own and documentation for achievements which he says are being ignored by the Fish and Wildlife vision document.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

GROUNDED?   (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

[Click on the images to enlarge them.]

I’ll post links here to Joe Duff’s documentation in defense of Aircraft Guided Migration, as well as to the USFWS vision statement. At the end of this post I’ll do my best to offer summarizing points for each of those.

Making a Five Year Plan for Whooping Cranes

But first, here’s a little more background about the emergence of the Fish and Wildlife vision statement, as well as the 5-year planning process, and a look at what happens next. The USFWS vision statement notes that we are approaching “the renewal of WCEP’s 5-year strategic plan . . .” and that the vision statement was drafted to provide guidance for the new 5-year plan.

Both the Fish & Wildlife Service and Operation Migration are among the founding partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP); both are among the most visible of the partners. As a reminder, in addition to OM and the USFWS, the founding partners include:

  • The International Crane Foundation
  • U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
  • U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
  • The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

According to Joe Duff, the USFWS claims no regulatory authority for the vision statement, but does want it to be the guiding document when all the partners meet in mid-January in the new year.

OM’s Rebuttal to the New USFWS Vision

Joe Duff makes a case that the Vision Statement that would eliminate his job is based on incomplete data, since it uses only population numbers from 2001 through 2010. And it ignores all the work done by WCEP from 2011 forward, he says. This includes establishing the new areas for whooping crane releases, and hopefully, for nesting, around Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the White River Marsh State Natural Area (an area now referred to by WCEP as “the Wisconsin Rectangle”).

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

And it’s bad timing, said Joe Duff, since, “We are now on the cusp of determining if these cranes can successfully breed in the black-fly-free habitat of the Wisconsin Rectangle.”

He also criticized the lack of any published Population Viability Analysis conducted “for either the UL or the DAR methods that have been used to release birds,” but said that Operation Migration, using the WCEP database, and other records, has employed PVA techniques to evaluate the birds released in the Wisconsin Rectangle since 2011. He can show, he said, that Operation Migration has developed the most effective method to date in terms of survivability and a host of other factors.

Duff and Operation Migration hope you’ll sign their petition (or access it at the OM Facebook page) asking the USFWS to consider all their data.

Joe Duff also touched on the more than $10 million in private funding that Operation Migration has been able to raise to help establish the EMP. ” . . . more than any other WCEP partner,” he said. “These are privately sourced funds that are not transferable to other projects and do not impinge on the fundraising efforts of other partners.”

What’s In the USFWS Vision for the Eastern Migratory Population?

*The “Vision Statement” of the Fish and Wildlife Service is a mixed bag of thin praise for the “many successful aspects of the reintroduction,” and long paragraphs defining strategies tried and not yet tried, and uncertainty about the population’s probability of meeting its number one objective: becoming self-sustaining.

There is also significant criticism of the captive-rearing techniques – for rearing whooping cranes that haven’t adapted as well to the wild, as USFWS believes they might. These techniques have been used for years at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, as well as Necedah and Horicon wildlife refuges and White River Marsh in Wisconsin, and also by both OM, and the International Crane Foundation.

MORE? (Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

(Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

And there is a much lamenting about “the population’s low reproductive success.”  That’s not hard to understand, as it is beginning to look like establishing a population of migratory whooping cranes in the wild, in Wisconsin, using captive-bred chicks, has been the “easy” part. (And I’m sure that’s relatively speaking.) Helping the population to fulfill that “number one objective,” and sustain itself . . . that’s the apparently insoluble puzzle that continues to haunt all who work with these whoopers.

And yet, to those of us watching from the craniac gallery it does feel like we are seeing instances of increasingly mature pairs successfully nesting, instances of perfect crane parents, instances of hope, like the great leap forward in the number of chicks hatched during the 2015 nesting season. It feels like these Wisconsin whoopers are so close! Could they perhaps, just need a little more time and human support?

Unfortunately, I don’t see much in the Vision Statement that deals with that kind of question. Or such hopes. But it does seem like everyone agrees that WCEP’s new five-year plan is still a work-in-progress.

Monday Morning Blogging: Golden!

The colors were “golden” along the back roads in Door County over the weekend. Juddville Hill Road, a short little arc of a road is a hidden gem, and was very colorful yesterday. If you’re heading north, it’s a right turn off Highway 42, before the Juddville crossroads. And before you or your GPS system can figure out where you’re going, it curves right back to the state highway. But not before a couple of photo ops.



Even these pumpkins are golden, having turned a bright yellow!

Of course their color had been painted on - the work of an artist for the Pumpkin Patch Festival held last weekend in Egg Harbor.

Of course their color has been painted on – the work of an artist for the Pumpkin Patch Festival held last weekend in Egg Harbor.  But Mother Nature was the artist for all the other photos here.

Along Juddville Hill Road, just east of Highway 42.

Another view along Juddville Hill Road.

Peninsula Players Road near Highway 42.

Peninsula Players Road near Highway 42.

Peninsula Players Road.

Down Peninsula Players Road


What a difference! Two weeks ago, I published the photo above – a late summer scene (taken September 29th) – in the post “Impatient for Peak Color.”  Yesterday I stood in the same spot, near the entrance to the Door County Trolley, (just outside Egg Harbor), and aimed the camera at the same adjacent field to the north.  This is what the camera sees now:


Yes, fall colors arrived gradually – slowly, it seemed. But they’re here now. Do you have a favorite place in Wisconsin – or wherever you are in the world – to enjoy the colors of fall?

In the Kettle Moraine, October 2013.

In the Kettle Moraine, October 2013.

My  absolute favorite place for that is the Kettle Moraine State Forest, especially the northern unit, which is an hour north of Milwaukee, and about the same, driving south from Green Bay. The sprawling northern unit of the Kettle Moraine parallels Lake Michigan, but about 30 miles inland.

In the Kettle Moraine; October, 2013.

In the Kettle Moraine; October, 2013.

The varied terrain there, which I’ve heard called “a gift from the glaciers,” is so different from anything else in the state –  a mixture of steep-sided ridges, conical hills, and flat, outwash plains.” The whole area is criss-crossed by a network of trails and scenic drives, and dotted with kettles (lakes left by the glaciers) and pre-glacial lakes. It’s a wonderful place to spend an autumn afternoon.


Can Captive Whooping Cranes Raise A Chick for the Wild?

In two previous posts I’ve written about the methods that young captive-bred, costume-reared whooping cranes are released into the wild. The best known, the Ultralight Method by which young whoopers are taught a migration route by following ultralight aircraft has been used to build the Eastern Migratory Population (the EMP) of whooping cranes in Wisconsin, since 2000. There are 6 ultralight-trained whoopers this year that have already begun – their schedule dictated by the winds and weather – to follow the ultralights south.

Not so well-known, but very well-tested, the Direct Autumn Release method has been used since 2005, and has also added a significant number of cranes into the EMP. With this method young whoopers, after costume-rearing as tiny chicks at the International Crane Foundation, are released into the wild as young colts near adult cranes; it is hoped they will follow the adults on migration. There are eight DAR birds this year, currently being monitored at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

For the past three years a completely new experiment, known as the Parent-Reared Method for releasing chicks from the captive populations into Wisconsin, has been tried.

What's this? At Necedah NWR: a temporary pen for the Parent-Reared Whooping Crane program. (USFWS photo, used with permission)

What’s this? At Necedah NWR: a temporary pen for the Parent-Reared Whooping Crane program. (USFWS photo, used with permission)

This Parent-Reared program originates from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center,  which is home to the original captive flock of whooping cranes. (Patuxent, in Maryland, is also where the ultralight chicks are hatched each year, and receive intensive training from the costume-rearing staff until they are old enough for their flight training with the ultralights in Wisconsin).

The Parent-Reared program was authorized for only three years, and involves only a handful of birds. Yet, in the future, according to Anne Lacey at the International Crane Foundation, it just might help the EMP reach the elusive goal of reproductive success.

But that’s getting ahead of the story for now. Here’s how the Parent-Reared release program was set up, and how it is working. In marked departure from both the Ultralight and the DAR programs, there are no costumed humans nurturing these young cranes. They did not hatch from eggs in man-made incubators, but instead from an egg that was incubated by their actual whooping crane parents.

After hatching, these chicks are reared by their whooper parents until they can fly. Once the chicks have fledged, the adult whooping cranes’ jobs are done, and the chicks are separated from them in preparation for their transfer to Wisconsin. Before the actual move, however, the 3 or 4 chicks – or colts (they are nearly adult-size now) – raised for this program are kept together at Patuxent, and given a bit of time to bond with each other.

They are then crated and flown here (to Wisconsin), Once here, and uncrated, they are kept together overnight at the International Crane Foundation. Meanwhile at Necedah NWR, a temporary pen has been set up for each crane near territory that is inhabited by an established pair of adult whoopers, in hopes that the adults will adopt the youngster and take it with them on migration.

At Necedah NWR: a parent-reared whooping crane will attract the notice of an adult pair of whoopers. (USFWS photo; used by permission)

At Necedah NWR: a parent-reared whooping crane, on the inside, will attract the notice of an adult whooper, on the outside.  (USFWS photo; used by permission)

Ann Lacey told me that sometimes this works like a charm. The adult pair take note right away that there is a new young colt on their territory, and seem to take a keen interest in it. When that happens they do quickly adopt it once it has been released from the pen (after just a few days). Other times the adult pair may simply tolerate the young bird, and not show a lot of interest, but will still allow it to hang around them.

Three new parent-reared birds have been released at Necedah this year. There were a total of just eight birds released through the parent-reared method in 2013 and 2014. Three of them died within a month of being released at Necedah, and five have survived to migrate and return to Wisconsin (and that’s twice, for the two surviving parent-reared birds from 2013).

A clear majority of these parent-reared birds are surviving, so there’s an affirmative answer to the question in the headline of this post “Can captive parent birds raise a bird for the wild?” It’s apparent they can. But here’s another question: how can these birds be the solution to the Wisconsin cranes’ reproductive success? Is the thought that they would be better parents?

And that brings up a number of other questions, including some about the Wisconsin cranes’ most recent breeding season. Sounds like questions for another post; I’ll just leave it there for now.

Monday Morning Blogging: The Wisconsin River

Here is a picture of the lovely and expansive Wisconsin River, as it runs through Iowa County. It is the second to last county that is touched by the river on its 430 mile course through Wisconsin:  from its source in the far north (where it is a narrow winding stream) to its mouth where it empties into the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien.

Wisconsin River - photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

The Wisconsin River, flowing westward through Iowa County – photo at Flickr (Used with permission.)

The Wisconsin River is currently “trending” for many conservationists in Wisconsin thanks to the personal odyssey of Ruth Oppedahl. Between September 27th and October 14th, Ruth is paddling the length of the river, often in the company of other conservationists, and talking to people who have spent whole careers working to protect water in Wisconsin.

Ruth, the leader of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (the NRF), has said she always wanted to paddle the length of the river “someday,” and suddenly, this year, forces aligned to make such a trip seem not just attractive, but compelling.

As explained on the NRF website: Wisconsin parks and all our natural resource programs have received “unprecedented funding reductions this year jeopardizing some of the things Wisconsinites love most about this         state. . .” Included in the state budget cuts: an $84,100 nonprofit capacity grant that NRF has received annually since 2000.”

A Hope to Rejunvenate:  ” . . by living outdoors for 18 days . .”

And as Ruth herself wrote: “Saddened by the reduction in support for conservation and natural resources in our state, I felt like I had to do something . . . people were asking me what could they could do?”

She scrapped plans to vacation in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, planning instead “to vacation in Wisconsin and paddle our namesake river . . . I hope to rejuvenate myself by living outdoors for 18 days. . .” While doing so, Ruth is meeting others along the river “and sharing the many ways we all care for our beautiful state.”

There are a number of ways you can follow Ruth’s adventures, meeting who she meets, learning how she deals with daily challenges from fixing a leaky kayak to portaging around dams; both beaver, and hydroelectric dams.
The quick and interactive method is NRF’s Facebook page where you can leave encouragement and advice, or ask a question.

My personal favorite is at NRF’s Wisconservation blog, where Ruth’s audio diary is transcribed each day. Here’s just one of the many Wisconsin River facts I’m learning along with Ruth: not all that long ago, the river near Hat Rapids (between Rhinelander and Tomahawk) was a polluted mess.

From Ruth’s post: ” . . . this was a place where human waste and paper mill – pulp mill – waste accumulated on top of the river and it was just a foam. Nobody lived on the river, it was disgusting. And then, thanks to the Clean Water Act, thanks to the work of people like Susan, the Wisconsin River is much, much cleaner than it was just 40 years ago.” I’d encourage anyone to get involved with Ruth Oppedahl’s odyssey; check it out.


Monday Morning Blogging: Impatient for Peak Fall Colors?

A bit of peak color is showing here, along Highway 42, one mile north of Egg Harbor, Wisconsin:

2015-09-29 15.02.38-2


But look at the rest of the trees in the neighborhood:

2015-09-29 15.03.05

Every one of the photos used with this blog post were taken last week Tuesday, Sept. 29th, near Egg Harbor. Any changes that may have occurred since then – and there must have been some – were imperceptible yesterday, a steely gray day in Door County, Wisconsin

Although Travel Wisconsin’s 2015 Fall Color Report, is showing most of Wisconsin with significant color, that’s not so in Door County. Currently, Door County is rated as having only 10% of peak color.

This comes as a bit of surprise, given the fact that early – as early as mid August! – there were little tiny bursts of color like this, (place your cursor on the photo below, and the small cluster of bright orange leaves right in the middle, comes into focus):

2015-09-29 15.04.02-2


Door County always seems to catch us by surprise, with a few turning leaves so early. Though this picture, above, was snapped Sept. 29th, there were a few spots just like this around Door County, that could be discovered by the sharp-eyed in mid-August!

And this year, by early September there were spots of color like this picture, below, all over the county. Parts of trees, half trees, and whole trees seemed to be changing color fast by early September:

2015-09-29 15.13.31



2015-09-29 14.57.18

But now, it’ true we’re seeing little change  Right now, the march of fall colors seems to be stalled and mostly we’re seeing sights like this one, above:

While waiting for more like this one, below: 

2015-09-29 15.13.06


In the meantime, we’ll be checking Travel Wisconsin, the official site of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, and their interactive 2015 Color Map for statewide and local county updates. And we will be patient, waiting for the “peak color” because without a doubt, it will come.