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.

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2 thoughts on “Ask the Experts: News for Craniacs

  1. You always provide interesting updates. Hubby and I were pretty sure we saw a whooper flying when we traveled in the Necedah vicinity. Kind of exciting to see these birds free and wild.

    • Oh, Ingrid, hello! I’m sure you saw a whooper over there! They are out and about all over Wisconsin in the summer – it’s still such a relatively small number, so a rare thing to see them. But definitely a possibility near Necedah. And Wisconsin Birders , on their Facebook page, often report sightings and have photos to post.

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