Tracking Whooping Cranes: Winter 2016, Part 2

This is Part 2 of the Winter 2016 news to report about the whooping cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population.

Below, you will find reports on:

– The Last Flight of Operation Migration

– The Release of the Class of 2015

– News of the two surviving wild chicks of 2015, and their families

– An update on the 8 Direct Autumn Release chicks of 2015, and the two surviving Parent-Reared chicks.

The Last flight of Operation Migration

It was a long slow final migration for Operation Migration and its six Class of 2015 ultralight-led whooping cranes. It was made so mostly by weather conditions that kept the project grounded for long stretches waiting for the perfect conditions necessary for the cranes and ultralights to fly together.

Time finally ran out while waiting for those conditions for the final brief 23 mile flight and the cranes were crated and driven to the winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge so they could be released and eased into their real lives in the wilderness. They could be off on their first, unaided migration north to WI in as little as six weeks, and they need time in Florida to learn how to be on their own.

Operation Migration in the air for the last time with ultralight-led whooping cranes; the final flight together with the Class of 2015.

Operation Migration in the air for the last time with ultralight-led whooping cranes; the final flight together with the Class of 2015. This photo is by Karen Willes, who has photographed the ultralight-led cranes’ arrivals at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge every year since 2009.  She was in Georgia, January 30th, to capture this dramatic shot of pilot Richard van Heuvelen and the six Class of 2015 cranes. Photo used with permission. (Can you see two birds, flying just off the right wingtip?)  

By some good fortune, there were veteran whooper watchers and photographers from Tallahassee, who traveled to southwestern Georgia when OM and the cranes made their second last flight. And that’s the one that, as it turns out, is the true final flight of Operation Migration and its ultralight-led whooping crane program. See the photo above, captured by Karen Willes, of this historic moment in the long campaign to reintroduce a second flock of migrating whooping cranes.

The Release of the Class of 2015

The last six ultralight-led cranes are now in the fourth and final phase of their training for real life – the “release phase.” Think of the phases this way: from hatching at Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center until their transfer to Wisconsin in early summer they were in the pre-flight training phase. In Wisconsin throughout the summer, they were in full flight training phase, and in the fall they left on migration to Florida, following the ultralights – the learning migration phase.

This fourth phase involves their release into an enclosed 4-acre marshy area of St. Mark’s NWR. They have their freedom to fly in and out of it, but their comings and goings continue to be monitored by a small staff of silent, costumed crane handlers. There are several fine posts at OM’s Field Journal right now that describe in great detail what is happening in the fourth phase.

The Stressful Process of Banding Whoopers:

The 2015 chicks were released at St. Marks Saturday, Feb. 6, and the first really important thing to happen to them after that, was the process of banding – during which identification bands and tiny tracking transmitters are attached to the legs of each bird. The cranes were kept in a small holding pen until the banding on Tuesday, Feb. 9th, and returned there for a few days following so they could acclimate, and be closely observed.

“Banding is always a stressful time for birds and crew,” OM’s Brooke Pennypacker writes. “The stress can cause injury and even death, and unfortunately, has.” But not this year! In the post, “With This Ring . . . Brooke describes banding step-by-step, and introduces the banding crew of nine, which included Dr. Richard Urbanek, retired USFWS biologist, and Scott Tidmus, a manager of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and “long time friend and volunteer on the project.”

In addition to Brooke’s helpful explanations, the post (check it out) includes gorgeous portraits of the individual birds, each with their new color-coded bands and transmitters.

Take a Virtual Tour:

Other posts to see include Brooke’s “They’re Here! Whooping Crane Socialization,” in which he describes the interactions between the six chicks and four older adult birds that are happily hanging out at the pen this year. And Heather Ray’s word & picture tour of St. Mark’s NWR Release Pen. It is a virtual visit to an area the public can never see.

Where the Wild-hatched Chicks Are:  W10-15 and W18-15

Last year’s bumper crop of chicks that were hatched in the wild was unlike anything ever seen before in this reintroduction project – 24 chicks were hatched in and around Necedah National Wildlife Refuge during the spring of 2015. It was phenomenal! But the bad news that followed that best-ever nesting season is that only three of those chicks survived to fledge and one of those fledglings died on the refuge, of a respiratory infection, before migration.

So where are the two that did survive and migrate with their families?

Crane tracker Hillary Thompson recently encountered both families. In late January she blogged about finding the family group, female 9-03 and male 3-04, with their chick, w18-15, at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. On February 3rd, she recorded the thrill of finding w10-15 alive and well with its family group (female 25-09 and male 2-04) in Kentucky.

Hillary was on the staff of the International Crane Foundation, from 2012 through 2014, “. . . and still haven’t quite left,” she writes on her blog’s “about” page. She is also currently working on a master’s degree from Clemson University”s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation.

Here is a bit more about the crane parents raising the wild chicks:

Detailed biographical records for each crane, which are kept by Journey North, make this report possible.

The female, 9-03, and her mate, 3-04, are one of the most successful parenting partnerships among the Wisconsin cranes, having now raised 3 chicks to fledge. In addition to w18-15, they were the parents of w1-10, who died in November 2013 after 3 and a half years of life, and w3-13 who died in December 2013 while on her first migration with the parents.

The pair raising w10-15 are a 2004 male (#2-04) and 2009 female (#25-09). The male of this pair has achieved his new status as whooping crane father after 3 mates and many almost-a-dad experiences. He and his first mate, 46-07 successfully hatched a chick in both 2011 and 2012, though neither survived to fledge and his mate died in August, 2012.

With a new mate, female 8-09, he successfully fostered the parent-reared 24-13, during fall 2013 and into the next spring. He and mate 8-09 had a successful nest in 2014, but their nesting ended sadly with the discovery of her death in mid-April. Male 2-04 mated again before the end of summer, and with his current partner, 25-09, successfully fostered another parent-reared chick, 27-14.

The pair and their fostered chick were back at Necedah NWR by March 31st last spring, and the successful foster parents soon had their very own newly hatched wild chick. Hopes are high for both surviving wild chicks, #10-15 and #18-15, that both will live long, and each will become a source for future Wisconsin whooping cranes.

And Here Are the Rest of the Chicks of 2015

Eight chicks that hatched in captivity in 2015, and designated for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes, were raised at the International Crane Foundation for the Direct Autumn Release program. This year they are designated #61 through #68-15. (I’ve written before about this release method; this post describes its mission and methods.)

Locating the DAR birds:

The eight have all been reported on migration and the whereabouts is known for all but one of them. That one, #64-15, was recorded having left on migration with a large group of sandhill cranes “a few days before November 24. Her signal was last heard as she traveled over Madison, WI . . .” (from the biographical notes kept by The Journey North).

A group of five of these 2015 DARs left Horicon NWR completely on their own, December 19th – not with sandhill or whooping cranes. They are #s 61, 62, 63, 65, and 67, and they were reported in an update from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) as located for a while in McHenry County, IL; #65-15 soon split from the group and followed a group of sandhills to the Goose Pond area of southern Indiana. The other four continued southwest, and are located on the border of Randolph County, IL and Sainte Genevieve County, MO.

Here is the location of the other two 2015 DAR birds: #68 went with sandhills to the Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in southern Indiana, and #66 followed Sandhills there, and then on to Lake County, in Florida.

The Parent-Reared birds go it alone this year:

The two Parent-Reared birds of 2015 – neither of them in a foster family of whooping crane parents – have been tracked to Wheeler NWR in AL (#14-15) and St. Martin County, LA ( #20-15). (See Can Captive Whooping Cranes Raise a Chick for the Wild? for more information about the Parent-Reared release method.)


Ask-the-Experts: Predators, Nesting Prospects, & Newsmakers

(This post continues a report on the long & interesting Ask the Experts event hosted last week  by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. See that post – the one immediately prior to this – for the rest of the report. You can link to the chat itself, here; select the link, “Whooping Cranes” on the right side of the page.)

There was a lot of talk about predators . . .

Predation – an early cause of death for whooping cranes in Wisconsin by predators such as coyote, bobcats, foxes, eagles – was on the minds of many of the participants in the Ask-the-Experts live online chat last week.

How will the chicks hatched in the wild ever succeed “with predation always lurking?” someone asked. Another, made a case for trapping predators, “utilizing professional trappers.”

“I know many share your concerns.”

It would just be common sense, given the amount of money invested in the wildlife “rehab” efforts, said a commenter identified as Sandhill Fan: “Whether it’s elk in northern and central Wisconsin or whooping cranes in the south . . . (there) could be such a greater return if only the state and federal powers could do what most citizens believe needs to be done – reduce the number of predators in the area.”

Trapping has been “considered, but not implemented,” said Davin Lopez, of the Wisconsin DNR, responding to this idea. He explained this is not generally seen as “consistent with the mission” of national wildlife refuges. He did say, however, that he appreciated hearing about this, adding, “I know many share your concerns.”

“What kind of predation studies are being suggested?”

Another question focused on predation studies, and the International Crane Foundation’s Anne Lacy said the issue does need more study, adding there is a plan being developed. “We really need to start with basic information, ” she said. “What predators are at the nest?” Next year, she said, tiny radio transmitters will be attached to the chicks when they are very small, “to track them and find out what may be taking them.”

 Can we keep whooping cranes like this safe from predators? Photo by Richard Urbanek, USFWS; Photo is in the Public Domain.

Can we keep whooping cranes like this, and their chicks, safe from predators? (Photo by Richard Urbanek, USFWS; Photo is in the Public Domain )

The plans for this are “very preliminary,” I learned, but the study that is being developed will mirror others done on Mississippi Sandhills.

“Do You Have Any Updates on Whoopsie?”

The topic of whoophills – cranes that result from a pairing of a whooping crane with a sandhill – is still current. There were a number of sightings of a whoophill, and questions about it, discussed by birders early this past summer at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. It was a complete family that people were seeing and photographing:  a sandhill mother, whooper dad, and their chick.

The family was soon in the news, and soon acknowledged by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – the chick, given the name, “Whoopsie,” and the very attentive dad identified as WCEP’s #11-16. Not long after that, WCEP announced it would capture Whoopsie, and provide him a life in captivity, since they believe a whoophill, left to potentially breed with whooping cranes in Wisconsin, would complicate the goal of establishing the whooping crane population.

So where is Whoopsie now, and how is he doing, people wanted to know? They learned he’s begun his new life at the International Crane Foundation, and has been undergoing a period of quarantine. Following that he is being moved to a new crane house next to a neighbor picked just for him: “a female sandhill crane who was raised by whooping cranes who lost her mate earlier this year.”

“Are you concerned about the possibility of more whoophills?”

Naturally, learning about Whoopsie’s fate led to more questions about whoophills – in particular, is WCEP concerned about the possibility of more whoophills being produced? Anne Lacy said they believe the pairing that led to Whoopsie occurred this summer because of “the sparse number of whooping crane females out there . . .” Next year, she pointed out, there will be a number of new female cranes in that area.

(There were five females in the ultralight class of 2014, and there are five more this year, as well as six females among the birds for direct autumn release this year. These whooper gals will only be one and two years old – too young for successful nesting, but not too young to attract the attention of the unpaired males, it is expected; not too young to form pair bonds.)

” . . . any nesting activity near White River or Horicon?”

Horicon, where Whoopsie was hatched, and the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area are the new areas in Wisconsin for release of captive-bred whooping cranes. Every bird hatched since 2011 for the ultralight and direct autumn release programs, has been released into these areas instead of at Necedah, as had been routine from 2001 through 2010.

The expectation, of course, is that as they mature, these cranes will nest and breed in the new area. It should be more hospitable to nesting cranes, because of a low incidence of the black fly population that often erupts around Necedah, during nesting season.

So, what are the prospects for this? Kay Ritenour, from the crane foundation explained that although there was one nest made by two young birds last year in Marquette County, that’s all so far. “The birds that spent most of the summer in White River this year were all 3 years old or less, so they are a bit young for nesting. Hopefully next year,” she said.

Most of the whoopers hatched in 2011 (the first year of the crane release areas) are now paired, but these are birds that, contrary to expectations, are nesting at Necedah, not in the new areas. The explanation given for that is that these are birds that, during their first winter on migration, were commingled with the Necedah cranes at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama.

“What about that juvenile that was captured in Iowa?”

And last, but certainly not least, there was lots of curiosity about a single young crane now known as “Kevin.” And there’s little doubt that curiosity will grow from what we learned about him at Ask the Experts.

Kevin was hatched earlier this year at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and “raised by real cranes straight out of the egg” explained Anne Lacy. Then, after fledging, he was brought to Wisconsin, along with two other young cranes, and released near adult pairs who, it is hoped, may adopt and migrate with the young one. (I’ve written about this experimental release program, here, in a post explaining the parent-reared program.)

But before Kevin could form any bonds with an adult pair, he flew away from Necedah, and was soon in Iowa. Dubuque, to be precise, where the bird took up residence behind a strip mall that included restaurants like Red Robbin and Buffalo Wild Wings! Many people have seen the news reports about Kevin’s time in Dubuque, and in particular about the staffers at Buffalo Wild Wings who became fascinated and protective of the bird, (and were the ones to “name” it.)

International Crane Foundation sent a rescue team to capture and return Kevin to Wisconsin. He was released here again, but didn’t stay long, as we learned last week. He flew off again!  Unaccompanied and unexpectedly, said Anne Lacy, who told us his most recent location had been identified as Tallulah, Louisiana.

“He is still fairly far north, separated from the non-migratory flock of whooping cranes.” She added that the refuge staff there (on the gulf coast of Louisiana) is aware, and keeping an eye out for him. She believes, if he shows up, he would be welcomed, and could stay there.

That was a week ago. Where is now? I’m hoping for another Kevin update soon. It would be on the Facebook pages of ICF, or perhaps Operation Migration, in case you are curious now, too.


Monday Night Blogging: Pictures from a Busy Weekend

It WAS a busy weekend! Visiting ICF all day Saturday, and hiking at a Door County Land Trust site yesterday, all took place in weather that felt more “late summer” than “early fall” – that’s weather we Wisconsin folk love, but can never count on.

Member Appreciation Day at ICF

On Saturday I had the good fortune to attend the Membership Appreciation Day held once a year at the International Crane Foundation – something I haven’t been able to do before because of scheduling conflicts.

A Black Crowned crane (native of West Africa) was so patient about the photographers!

A Black Crowned crane (native of West Africa) was a patient model for the photographers.

I do think that for the modest amount of the membership fee ($25 or $35 for a single; $50 for a family), if you only use it once a year – to visit the cranes on Member Appreciation-Day, it would still be a great bargain. The guided tours by the experts, the behind-the-scenes tours, and all the Q & A opportunities with the experts – that’s an amazing amount of access to the scientists who are protecting cranes all over the world for just the price of becoming a member.

Groups toured at Crane City during Membership Appreciation Day. At all other times this is an off-limits facility for visitors at ICF.

Groups toured at Crane City during Membership Appreciation Day. At all other times this is an off-limits facility for visitors at ICF.

And, or course you can also use your annual membership for free admittance for yourself and 2 or 3 guests, all season long. It’s just that on the once-a-year special appreciation day, you have the extra benefit of meeting and learning from so many of the staff.

I’ll be writing more about what I did and learned at Membership Appreciation Day, soon.

And a Short Hike at Legacy Nature Preserve at Clay Banks

I received a tip last week, through the Door County Land Trust, that a gathering of Monarch butterflies – a large gathering, I think – had been attracted to the Legacy Nature Preserve at Clay Banks, by its September-blooming fields. “Apparently they are stocking up on goldenrod nectar before migration south,” wrote the Land Trust’s Communications Coordinator, Cinnamon Rossman.

A well-defined trail through the tall grass, from the parking lot . . .

A well-defined trail through the tall grass, on a gentle up-slope from the parking lot to the top of a bluff.      

By the time I could check this out yesterday, there were no Monarchs to be found – no doubt already off on their migration. (Here is a link from the Woodland Dunes Nature Center in Manitowoc that explains the four generations of Monarch butterflies that occur in a year’s time; and the final one that is the migrating generation, the one that flies thousands of miles to forests in northern Mexico.) Despite the lack of butterflies, there was still plenty of blooming goldenrod, and it was easy to visualize how it would attract the Monarchs. We also enjoyed a good hiking trail from the parking to the top of a bluff, then down through fields and meadows to Lake Michigan below.

You can find Legacy Nature Preserve along Lake Michigan (at 1188 S. Lake Michigan Drive) in the area called Clay Banks. This is south of Sturgeon Bay.

More photos of the Legacy Nature Preserve at Clay Banks:

Goldenrod was first spotted at the crest of the hill.

Goldenrod was first spotted at the crest of the hill.


Then more goldenrod and Lake Michigan in the distance.

Then more goldenrod and Lake Michigan in the distance.                                                                


And there was a mass of goldenrod along a ridge, in either direction, about as far as the eye could see.

And there was a mass of goldenrod along a ridge, in either direction, about as far as the eye could see.

The Accidental Craniac

Today I’m reblogging a gem from a friend, Ingrid, who blogs at Live, Laugh, RV, where she published these insights and glorious crane photos after visiting the International Crane Foundation in August.

She and I met up for a long luncheon chat at Sturgeon Bay’s busy little Bluefront Cafe right after she had been to the crane foundation. This is remarkable only for the fact that it was actually the first time we had ever met in the real world. Ingrid and her husband Al, formerly of Colorado, are full-time RV-ers, meaning that “home” for them is anywhere they point their house on wheels. For a couple of weeks this past August, it’s Wisconsin they were calling “home.”

"Seen any whoopers?" people kept asking her. (Photo by Ingrid at "Live, Laugh, RV; used with permission)

“Seen any whoopers?” people kept asking her. (Photo by Ingrid at “Live, Laugh, RV; used with permission)

When I first encountered Ingrid in the blogosphere two years ago, she didn’t quite know what a “craniac” was. In fact, she didn’t even know what a whooping crane was when she was first photographing them all over Rockport, TX – framing shot, after amazing shot – until someone said. . . . . .

Never mind. Ingrid explains it best, just below. Right there in her post, “The Accidental Craniac:”  Have a look!

Whoopsie’s Capture & Relocation Provokes a Controversy

A hybrid crane chick known as Whoopsie was captured this week by staff of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and removed from eastern Wisconsin to the Milwaukee County Zoo, where it awaits transfer to its new home at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The chick – officially called a whoophill, is the result of a successful pairing in the wild between a male whooping crane and a female sandhill.

The pair and their chick were first observed at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in late May. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) issued this statement July 22nd: “Leaving the hybrid whoophill on the landscape does nothing to supplement the Eastern Migratory Population or further recovery of the species. . . .” In fact, they say, it just creates more problems for the EMP since it removes a valuable whooping crane from the breeding population. And the chick could – in theory, at least – grow up to mate with a female whooping crane, thereby removing a breeding female from the population.

The dad of Whoopsie proved to be a vigilant father and helpful mate, protecting the chick from predation. WCEP ultimately hopes to separate the pair and re-introduce this successful whooper dad to potential whooper mates.

Many “Facebook Critics” Post Objections

This news has not met with a lot of applause. As soon as it was posted at the Facebook pages of WCEP and some of its partners (Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundations) the negative comments flared up.

From comments at ICF’s Facebook post:

“This is sad, sad news and I am terribly disappointed with ICF. Let nature take its course.”

And “Breaking up a bonded pair is cruel and so is placing that baby into captivity. Disgusted.”

But there are also defenders of the decision:,

“Both birds will re-pair and the whoophill chick will have a good life. I see it as something that must be done – it yields the best outcome for the eastern population.”

Confusion: Who Are the Whooping Crane Partners

What has also emerged in some of the comments was a confusion about who to “blame” for this unpopular decision. Some commenters suggested their support of ICF and OM would not continue. It’s easy to understand the confusion – there are so many partners involved in this extremely complex effort to restore a population of long-gone migrating whooping cranes into the Wisconsin to Florida migration corridor.

An early post here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane – Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes – explains the WCEP partnership, which includes ICF and OM. And some of the commenters themselves took pains to explain that this was a partnership, pointers others in the thread to WCEP’s website so they could learn about all that are involved.

Still More “Facebook Critics”

But the comments at WCEP’s own Facebook page were uniformly critical of the action. Here’s an example:

“This makes me sick. Let nature takes its course. To take the chick away from its parents and then to spilt up the bonded pair after that! Leave them alone.” And, “I disagree with your decision. I support everything you do to protect the flock, but sometimes things should just be left alone.”

There was criticism at Operation Migration’s Facebook page, as well:

“I don’t like this at all.” And, “Let nature take its course. He chose his mate. Let him be.”

And, “But it is another thing to “play God,” deciding to break up what has occurred in nature and incarcerating a living creature when the gain (preventing the possible loss of a breeding bird) is both iff-y and of small consequence in the grand scheme.”

Defenders, Too, of a “Tough and Unpopular Decision”

Some commenters get very long-winded, and are – not surprisingly – very passionate, with what seem to me, to be good reasons to “just let them be wild;” and to use this opportunity to study this pair in the wild.

But at “the end of the day” – which means, in this case, after perhaps too much time spent among the comments – I’m going to let my head overrule my heart and go with this sentiment:

“I understand why, and I agree it needs to be done, but it is still so sad. . . star-crossed pair that they are.” And: “. . . sad, but definitely understandable. Hopefully the plan will work and more whooping cranes will be the result!”

It also helps, I thought, that the defenders of this decision and the professionals who made it also made a case for the fact that Whoopsie will lead a good life at Patuxent. Captivity at a wildlife research center, it was suggested, should not be equated with a caged life in a zoo.

So that’s what I think about this “tough and unpopular” choice. How about you? What do you think?

Yes, Success! [For Operation Migration’s Class of 2014] & Other Whooping Crane News

Seven young whooping cranes, hatched in captivity in the spring of 2014, and costume-reared all summer at wildlife refuges, first in Maryland and then in Wisconsin, are now safe in Florida and well on their way to becoming wild and free. They’ve been there, at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, on the gulf coast just south of Tallahassee, a week now. This is The Badger & the Whooping Crane’s update on their ultralight-led migration and the outlook for the rest of their first year of life.

A Most Unusual Migration?

This had to be one of the strangest migrations led by Operation Migration, yet. It is migration #14 for the ultralight pilots and their partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Each migration is unique with its own sets of challenges and memorable moments – weather calamities, injuries, a once-disputed FAA license, extremely cooperative birds, as well as unusually non-cooperating birds – all those are things I’ve noticed, and I’ve just been following this story closely since 2010.

This migration seems to have had a little of most of those things – minus any FAA disputes. As is so often the case, it’s that great imponderable – The Weather – that causes most of the problems that Operation Migration has to contend with; that’s probably never been truer than this year. Very specific weather conditions, including wind speed and direction, are required for the little ultralight aircraft to fly with large young birds that are closely following it. Generally good weather for these flights would be the sort of conditions you expect and routinely get – at least for a few special days – in the autumn of a place like Wisconsin.

Winter in Wisconsin: It’s No Place for Whooping Cranes

But not this year. I live here and can fully attest to the frustrating fall days 2014 produced; it’s not that we were having blizzards, or anything like that – just a lot of cloudy, windy, drizzly days, one after another; relentlessly. And eventually, fairly early in November, that began to feel like winter – and with it the very real possibility of blizzards.

At that point Operation Migration and its seven whooping crane colts, were still grounded in the middle of Wisconsin with only 50 miles of the 1100 mile journey behind them; one crane was still nursing a late-summer injury, and 3 others were seemingly recalcitrant about flying. So on the evening of November 14th (with predicted lows for the next week showing single digits) all seven cranes were packed into boxes and driven in a van to northern Tennessee. The story of that unusual road trip is told at the Field Journal, by conservation leader and OM board member Walter Sturgeon, who drove that van.

Once-Reluctant Cranes Become Masters of Migration

At first the weather in Tennessee seemed to mimic the nasty autumn of Wisconsin, but at last, during the week of our Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S., both the weather conditions, and OM’s luck with the cranes began to change for the better. Before the week was over 5 of the 7 cranes had flown 3 long, perfect flights (65 miles, then 67 miles, and 111 miles)! It seemed an astounding performance from cranes who had last flown a month before, and then only for a mere 28 miles.

That very good news was followed on December 2nd and 3rd with another welcome announcement that all 7 of the cranes were now flying. They hopscotched down the length of Alabama and on Dec. 9th crossed over into the southwestern tip of Georgia. Less than 100 miles were left to their destination! Two short flights later the ultralights led the seven cranes down to their large winter pen site at St. Marks NWR in Florida. As the flying contingent got close enough, two costumed crane handlers “called them down” into the pen, and the ultralight pilots quickly climbed back into the sky alone.

Photographer Karen Willes, watching the Florida arrival of the Class of 2014 from the town of St. Marks,  caught this beautiful moment:  ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

Photographer Karen Willes, watching the Florida arrival of the Class of 2014 from the town of St. Marks, caught this beautiful moment: ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

And with that, the 2014 migration had ended. It’s final 16 days seemed as smooth and flawless as its first six weeks had been rough and fruitless. To recap this migration with a few numbers: it has ended earlier, December 11th, than most other migrations (you can check out the timelines for 2013 and ’14 here, and back to 2008 here). It probably has the highest percentage of “grounded” days: 51 out of 63. And it absolutely logged the highest number of miles that the cranes were crated and driven, since more than 500 miles were covered, by van, in one day, November 14th, between central Wisconsin and northern Tennessee.

But Will They Come Back to Wisconsin?

So what happens next, after a winter of semi-wildness in a protected habitat at St. Mark’s? Will our seven youngest cranes find their way back to Wisconsin when they take off on their first unaided migration north come spring? OM Pilot Joe Duff wrote about this at the Field Journal when the “Plan C” to drive to Tennessee was unveiled: ” . . .they will have the knowledge of the direction from which they arrived,” he wrote, and from Tennessee “. . it’s a straight run north, and with luck, we will see them back in White River next spring.”

Of Course, Why not? (Maybe?)

Watching how the great majority of preceding ultralight-trained whooping cranes have aced this, it seems clear that there is a powerful attraction pulling the young birds back to the area where they first lived and fledged. I’m betting (and hoping!) that the first return trip to Wisconsin for these youngest whoopers will be as smooth as the last three weeks of their unusual ultralight-guided journey. But only time will tell, and this will be one of the most interesting stories to watch for in the new year!


And Links to Other Whooping Crane News:  A Lawsuit in TX, A New Cohort in LA,  and More!

Following are links to several other items of whooping crane news, including a blog post from Friends of the Wild Whoopers about a federal case involving whooping cranes, water rights, and the Endangered Species Act. The case has been making its way through the federal court system, first at the District Court level in Texas, and now at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The District Court found for the plaintiffs, The Aransas Project, that argued that 23 endangered, federally protected whooping cranes had died in Texas in 2009 because of state action that authorized certain water withdrawals which in effect wiped out the cranes’ food supply. Attorneys for The Aransas Project are hopeful that their case, won at the District Level, but lost at the Appeals level, will now be heard by the Supreme Court.

In Louisiana:  The newest cohort of juvenile whooping cranes to join the non-migratory flock of whoopers being established in Lousiana was delivered to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, in Vermillion Parish, west of New Orleans on Dec. 4th. There were 14 young whooping cranes in this cohort, bringing the total Louisiana flock population to 40. Read the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for more about this new program.

From the International Crane Foundation:  A team of experts from ICF has published findings in the November issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management; Nathan D. Van Schmidt, Jeb A. Barzen, Mike J. Engels, and Anne E. Lacy have published “Refining reintroduction of whooping cranes with habitat use and suitability analysis,” which explains the process used in 2011 for selection of the White River Marsh Wildlife Area and Horicon Marsh as new release sites for wild whooping cranes.

Kentucky’s Sandhill Crane Hunt is ongoing right now, extending from December 13 through January 11, 2015. Here is an article in the Glasgow (Ky) Daily Times cautioning that there have been current sightings of endangered whooping cranes in Kentucky, and urging hunters to familiarize themselves with the differences between the two species. “If you shoot one,” said state wildlife biologist John Brunjes, “then you’re going to be in trouble.”

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.]

Quick Crane Chick Milestone: Fledged!

All seven chicks in Operation Migration’s ultralight training program, as well as the single-surviving chick-in-the-wild, have recently fledged!

This milestone – where a bird finds its wings and flies – really flies, not just gets a little bit off the ground, but can cover 100 yards in the air without touching the ground – is exactly akin to the first unaided walk across the room of a human toddler; and it’s celebrated the same way by those who work with the whooping crane chicks.

Operation Migration announced Friday at the Field Journal and its Facebook page: “All seven young whooping cranes exited their enclosures and all seven took off with the aircraft,” some of them completing a full circuit, following OM pilot Joe Duff around the training area and returning to land on the runway with the ultralight.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Also Friday the International Crane Foundation posted to Facebook that the one surviving wild chick (of 13 hatched this year) of the Eastern Migratory Population, was observed August 1st “flying a short distance along a wetland dike.” The chick is designated “W3-14” (wild chick #3 of 2014).

While this is such an important development for all of these chicks, for the wild-born bird this is adds a new important safety measure to increase its survival chances: the all-important ability to fly away to safety from potential predators.

ICF’s 2014 Chicks Will Become Louisiana Whoopers Instead of DAR Birds

In other chick news from the ICF, 5 of the chicks hatched there this spring have been sent to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where they will be socialized with chicks that hatched at Patuxent. The whole group will eventually be released into the new non-migratory flock that is being established in Louisiana.

As explained at ICF’s Facebook posting Monday, four of the chicks had been expected to be released here in Wisconsin as Direct Autumn Release chicks, but a decision was made that such a small number would not make for a successful DAR release. This will be the first year that ICF has not raised chicks for the DAR release program since that release method was first tried in 2005.