Whooping Crane News from Near and Far

From Washington, D.C. to far northern Canada to Wisconsin’s fields and wetlands, here’s news about whooping cranes from all over. Beginning with the far away:

In Canada

Friends of the Wild Whoopers has a new post about nesting season for the whoopers of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, which occurs later than ours in Wisconsin. These whoopers, migrate much further than the ones that return to Wisconsin every March and April. They complete their 2,500 journey from Texas to far northern Alberta in late April and early May.

There are about 300 individual cranes in the population, which has very slowly climbed back to this number from an all time low of only 16 birds in the winter of 1941-42. Their numbers today – still solidly in the “endangered” category – are yet so encouraging! Always important to remember: the AWB flock is the only surviving original flock of wild whooping cranes, and thus, the sole source of all the whooping cranes in the world today. That is around 600 birds, including those in the wild and in captivity.

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

But about the flock’s current nesting season: 68 nests were counted in an aerial survey conducted at the Wood Buffalo National Park over four days near the end of May, Friends of the Wild Whoopers reports. It will be August before there is a follow up survey that reports the number of surviving chicks. Certainly a good number of surviving chicks can be hoped for from 68 nests!

While this certainly sounds like a good number of nesting cranes, this is not a record. Friends of the Wild Whoopers reported there were a record-breaking season last summer – 82 nests; before that the record was 76 nests in 2011. FOTWW reports that drought in the region may be a contributing factor to lower numbers this year.

At the U.S. Supreme Court

An appeal of “the whooping crane case” which put fresh water rights for endangered species on trial in Texas will not be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal district court in Houston had earlier found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was responsible for the deaths of 23 endangered whooping cranes in drought-stricken Texas during 2008 and ’09 – and thus, was in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Last year the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out the lower court’s 2013 decision.

Now the Supreme Court has declined to reconsider the case, but Dr. Richard Beilfuss, president of the International Crane Foundation, praised “the multi-year legal process” for helping to bring the issues surrounding “a healthy coastal ecosystem for both Whooping Cranes and people” to many in Texas and throughout the nation. While expressing his disappointment, Dr. Beilfuss, ICF president and a water management specialist, said “we remain steadfast in our commitment to safeguard the future of the Whooping Crane and address their irrefutable need for clean water.”

In Congress: the Endangered Species Act Could Be at Risk

The Endangered Species Act, which is certainly a most important U.S. law for the survival of the whooping crane was recently called “the most powerful environmental law on earth,” by Dr. Chritina Eisenberg, the lead scientist for Earthwatch Institute. Despite that – or maybe because of it – the ESA now faces “the gravest assault it has ever faced,” from the Republican-led U.S. Congress.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin's endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Not long ago – due to habitat loss and use of DDT – the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. The bald eagle was removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997, and from the federal list in 2007. (USFWS photo)

Blogging at the Huffington Post, Dr. Eisenberg named seven separate Senate bills aimed at “reforming” the ESA, and 3 House of Representative bills that would remove protection from gray wolves. In addition she warns that “myriad insidious riders have been attached to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016, which was recently passed by the House of Representatives. She described it as a 934 page document with riders “literally buried in the bill,” including one that would halt recovery efforts for the sea otter, and many that also threaten other benchmark environmental laws.

Overall she described this as “a smoothy orchestrated effort to gut the ESA . . .We’ve made enormous national conservation policy inroads since the 1940s,” she writes, “but we risk losing all we have gained.”

And In Wisconsin: a Whoophill

It has happened before, but this is a first for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes: a male whooping crane and female sandhill crane have mated and produced a chick. This is the first successful nesting activity of any whooping crane in the vicinity of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the hybrid chick and its blended family is a great curiosity for all craniacs.

The chick is officially known as a Whoophill, and has unofficially been given the oh-so-cute name of “Whoopsie.” You can learn more about “Whoopsie” from the International Crane Foundation which has explained that such pairing of two different species happens routinely among various species in the wild, but is “still a rare event overall.” And do visit Operation Migration to see some great pictures of this successful family – in particular, the very attentive whooper dad.

A Single-Parent Whooping Crane

This is a story of loss and hope. First came the loss, earlier this summer of all but one of the wild-hatched chicks. A record number of 13 chicks were hatched in the wild places in and around Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. There were a few, heady weeks in May as the reports of the first wild hatchling was followed by a second; then another and another, until 13 wild-hatched chicks were confirmed (see the section on Reproduction).

Hopeful Days, Sobering Losses

Those springtime hopes were soon followed by this sobering report in mid-June at Operation Migration’s Field Journal that only 3 chicks could be confirmed alive. Tiny whooping crane chicks, apparently, are no match for the bigger wildlife that preys upon them in Wisconsin. Hope shrunk further with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s official update in mid-July which made it clear that only one wild chick (#3 of 2014) was surviving.

Even so, for those that closely follow the progress of this re-introduced whooping crane population, hope settled firmly on W3-14 and it’s attentive parents. The International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski was tracking the crane family in Wood County, and posting encouraging updates and photos of them on Facebook (July 22 and August 13).

The adult cranes in this family, male 12-02, and female 19-04, were veteran parents. They had first paired up in the fall of 2006 and their first confirmed nest, though unsuccessful, was discovered in the spring of 2008. In 2009, they successfully hatched a chick that lived to mid-July. They hatched three more after that, and all, including W3-14, fledged.

Most distressing then, when it was announced this week that 19-04, the female of the pair, is now missing, and probably deceased.

New Hope:  Crane Dad & Chick Duo

The report from the International Crane Foundation, Aug. 27, states: “19-04, (the mother of W3-14) has disappeared. She was last observed with her family on the evening of Aug. 16, 2014.” It is posted on the ICF Facebook page, and the Facebook pages of Operation Migration and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, as well. With all that experience gained by the pair, (#19-04 and #12-02) with hatching chicks successfully, and their very good track record of raising them to fledging, this is particularly bitter news.

But their chick, W#3-14, has been photographed again, in good health, and in the company of now Single-dad Whooping Crane 12-02. And the hope all shifts to this Dad & chick duo.

The Recovery of the Whooping Crane Species

The survival of this wonderful North American species of bird – these tall, elegant, super-fliers – has never been assured since their numbers in the only natural-occurring flock dwindled into the mere teens in the 1940s.

Whooping Crane  (Photo, courtesy of International Crane foundation)

Whooping Crane (Photo, courtesy of International Crane foundation)

This original Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock (which migrates between it’s breeding territory in northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast), has recovered from 16 birds in the winter of 1941-42, to around 300 today. Three hundred wild whooping cranes is something to celebrate, that’s for sure! But it’s not nearly enough to consider the future secure for the species, and the efforts to re-introduce a second flock – such as the Eastern Migratory Population based in Wisconsin – is a hedge against any potential disaster befalling the Aransas-Wood Buffalo cranes.

Even though the number of birds in that flock is now light years ahead of where it was in the 1940s and 50s, progress has moved at a snail’s pace. Still, hope has always been a partner with the whooping crane species.

[Important Note:  The biographical facts about the cranes in this story are available through the outstanding efforts of The Journey North website to chronicle the lives (and deaths) of each and every crane introduced, or born, into the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes.]