Happy News for the New Year: From the Cow Pond!

Happy New Year! Here is an update to one of The Badger & the Whooping Crane’s most visited posts – and the longest one ever – about the Cow Pond Whoopers – a special pair with an unusual winter territory near Tallahassee, FL – and Karen Willes, Citizen Scientist; it was published in March, 2015.

Not long after my post about them, the cow pond pair returned to Wisconsin, nested and hatched a chick. Their fans in Tallahassee and the many who follow them through Karen’s posts on Facebook, had cause to be jubilant, but it didn’t last long. Like many vulnerable creatures in the wild, the chick survived only a short time; even worse, for the whooper fans, this popular pair split up, and Mrs. Cow Pond Whooper (known specifically as 15-09) is following another mate.

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willis)

The Cow Pond Pair, 11-09 with 15-09, a year ago, when they were still a pair; the male, 11-09, is now back at the cow pond near Tallahassee, but single this year.  [Photo collage by Karen Willes]

The fate of the male of the pair (11-09) and of future visits of whooping cranes to the cow pond on the edge of Tallahassee was uncertain. But Karen Willes, busy with birding, and the Apalachee Audubon Society, and other citizen science activities that occupy her days, held out hope for more whooping crane visits during the 2015-2016 migration season, and male 11-09 did not disappoint. Late in the afternoon of Christmas day 11-09 swooped in to reclaim “his” cow pond, and delight the Tallahassee craniacs who had been on the lookout for just such a moment.

Karen missed the precise moment by just 30 minutes. She had just passed the pond on an outing, “but nothing was there,” she told me in an email. “About a half hour later I got a call from a resident who lives directly across from the pond. As soon as I saw her caller ID, I knew . . . . We immediately went to the pond and put out signs. So the documentation began on Christmas Day!”

At "The Cowpond," whooping cranes 15-09, on the left, and 11-09. Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission.

Another photo of the former cow pond pair where it’s easy to distinguish the male, 11-09, by his identifying color bands which read, green-white-red (top-to-bottom).          [Photo by Karen Willes]

Karen’s interest in the whooping crane pair wintering so close to her home began with photographing them and has steadily grown in different ways. Two years ago she made sure there were signs around the area, and information cards about whooping cranes that people could take with them. In this way she educated people about the plight of this endangered species, and explained the need for curious onlookers to keep a respectful distance from these birds. From there Karen’s interest developed into keeping records of the comings and goings of the cow pond duo, and their various behaviors, using her proximity to them to observe and document the habits of these wild creatures.

Then Karen submits her work to the professionals she has come to know at the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration. this helps them keep track of, and better understand, the behavior of the wild whooping cranes they are working to save.

But back to 11-09: what’s next for this lonely-guy, single whooping crane? Karen sees some hope for him finding a mate in Florida. “There are five whoopers from previous years already at the pen at St. Marks,” she said. “He knows the way to the pen (about 25 miles to the south) . . . Perhaps if he decides to strike out on his own, he may find a lovely mate down there. That is our hope!”

St. Mark’s, of course, is the national wildlife refuge that is the destination for the young ultralight-led cranes, and “the pen” is an enclosed wetlands area where the young birds are lightly monitored until they leave on their own first migration north in the spring. Some of them, like 11-09, always return to this part of Florida.

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

And this is the cow pond, with one of the signs provided by Karen Willes in the foreground.  [Photo by Karen Willes]

Meanwhile, 11-09 has been spending nearly every day since his Christmas arrival foraging around the cow pond, and delighting the visitors that have been gathering as the word of his arrival – and Karen’s Facebook posts about him – have spread. Though without a mate, he seems to have plenty of companions – even attracting a cohort of nine sandhills to his territory earlier this week. There are also ducks, geese, and yes, even the cows, that he’s interacting with! You too can follow this bit of wildlife drama from afar by checking Karen Willes’ daily posts to Facebook. If there’s any news of 11-09 finding a new whooper mate to join him at the cow pond, I’ll be sharing that right here, too!

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.

 

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.

The Whooper Fledglings of 2015

It’s been too long since The Badger & the Whooping Crane has mentioned any news about the cranes, themselves, in a post – over a month! To remedy that, I offer this one about the three new wild chicks – they are now fledglings! they can fly! –  that are still surviving from this spring’s bountiful, record-breaking crop of 24 chicks that hatched in Wisconsin.

By mid July it was clear that only 3 chicks – of the record 24 hatched – were surviving. Last week I heard it confirmed on Wisconsin Public Radio, by Anne Lacey of the International Crane Foundation that the three have continued to survive, and have fledged. Anne did an excellent job addressing the threats that await whooper chicks, and hence, the low chick survival numbers. She was a guest of Glen Moberg, the host on Aug. 21st for the Joy Cardin Show. You can hear that broadcast, if you’d like, at the link.

The chicks – or now the fledglings, are: W3-15 (Wild One #3 of 3015); W10-15, and W18-15. Make a note of that youngest fledgling, #18, because that chick belongs to the most successful parenting duo of these Wisconsin cranes (also known as the Eastern Migratory Population, or the EMP). The successful parents, #9 of ’03 (the female) and #3 of ’04, have, to date, hatched and raised three chicks to the point of  fledging. I wrote some biographical details of this pair in a June 5th post (scroll down to “A Veteran Whooper Parenting Pair”).

 

Whooper family with it's wild-hatched chick, w18-15. Photo by Jana Lood, used with permission.

Whooper family with its wild-hatched chick, w18-15. Photo by Jana Lood, used with permission.

              Editor’s Note:   Above is a wonderful photo of w18-15 and its parents that was taken August 15th from the observation tower at Necedah NWR,  by Jana Lood.  Jana, who lives in Illinois, told me she has visited Necedah multiple times and has seen whooping cranes there a number of times, though not every time  “It was all sheer luck,” she said.  “This was my first time at the tower, and it was a last-minute, lucky, decision to go up there.” She added that the family was visible to the naked eye, though binoculars, of course are a help to see more details.  She used a 50-500 lens for this picture.

 Two More Wild Whooper Families

The most mature of the fledglings is w3-15. This fledgling hatched at or near Necedah NWR on May 11th, to a first time parent pair, female #17 of ’07 and male #10 of ’09. The pair had previously nested together in 2012 and again in 2014, but no chick hatched from either attempt.

Fledgling w10-15 is the first chick to hatch for pair 25-09 (the female) and #2 of ’04. This is a fairly new pair, only together since last fall. At that time they were presented with a chick to foster. The chick, designated #27 of 2014 had been hatched and raised by a captive pair at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.

After fledging, 27-14 was brought to Wisconsin and released near the adult pair (25-09 and 2-04) who successfully fostered it. Now a yearling female, 27-14 continues to do well on her own, and her foster parents are so far, successful with their very own new fledgling, #w10 of 2015!

Fledglings are the Hope of the EMP

While the low numbers of survival for the EMP chicks is a serious concern for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, Anne Lacey reported on The Joy Cardin Show, that many things have gone right for this re-introduction of the species into Wisconsin, including learning to migrate  well, and maturing and forming pair bonds. There are reproduction goals, though, not yet achieved. The three surviving chicks of 2013 represent a record number of fledglings and something else as well.  That “something else” is high hopes that the EMP, little-by-little will continue to grow.

The Citizen Scientist and The Cow Pond Whoopers

The Cow Pond whoopers are gone now from Florida. Gone, but not forgotten. There are dozens and dozens of new cow pond craniacs – many in the immediate area of the cow pond, southeast of Tallahassee, and others around the country and in Canada – who are hungry for news of this whooping crane pair as they make their migration north to the breeding territory in Wisconsin.

If there is news about them from somewhere along the migration route you can be sure that Karen Willes will have it, and will share it through social media for all the others. Karen, a retired choral music educator and music minister emeritus for East HIll Baptist Church in Tallahassee, is also a photographer who has spent many hours capturing dramatic images of the Cow Pond Whoopers.

Gradually, though, her photographic interest in the whooping crane pair has expanded to other efforts on their behalf – in particular the effort to document their days and nights at the cow pond, and to spread awareness of the endangered whooping crane species. Along the way Karen Willes has become a citizen scientist, and evidence that her efforts are succeeding can be found in all the new craniacs waiting for news of this pair.

[All the images accompanying this post are the photos of Karen Willes]

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

The Cow Pond Whoopers, as they take off for a day of whooping crane adventures. Photo by Karen Willes, January 4, 2015.

If the news doesn’t come from someone reporting sightings of them along the migration route, the Cow Pond Whoopers should be building a nest back in Wisconsin soon enough, and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership will report it, and Karen will pass that on to anyone who might have missed the report. And if a chick should result from that nest, and if the whooper parents raise that chick to fledge, and it accompanies them on their journey back to the cow pond, that would be like the Trifecta or the Triple Crown or the Grand Prix, for the cow pond craniacs.

But with or without a wild chick of their own, this pair of whoopers is almost certain to return to its wintering grounds on the humble “cow pond” just east of Tallahassee, when the fall migration season comes round again. And when that happens, news of their arrival will spread fast and they will be joyfully welcomed, as the rare, royal visitors they are.

Who Are these Cow Pond Whoopers?

On January 13, 2010 the 82nd day of their first migration from Wisconsin to Florida, 10 young whooping cranes touched down at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge just south of Tallahassee. The young cranes, including #15, a female, and #11, her future mate, were part of the Class of 2009, which had been trained in Wisconsin by Operation Migration pilots to follow their ultralight aircraft. Since the previous October they had been following them all the way to Florida, thereby learning a migration route they would use ever-after as free, wild whooping cranes.

In the enthusiastic crowd of 1500 who came out to watch a flyover of the cranes and ultralights, was Karen Willes with her camera, photographing the scene. Little did she imagine then that two of the birds in the group she was watching would come to so preoccupy her winter months.

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Flyover of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. Up there, among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. (Photo by Karen Willes)

After two months of lightly-monitored freedom at St. Marks NWR for this Class of 2009, a group of eight of them banded together and began their first, unaided migration back north. They left at midday March 24th, and were recorded back at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on April 1, 2010. Both cranes 11-09 and 15-09 were part of that group. They returned to St. Marks in late 2010 and came back to Wisconsin in Spring 2011 in similar groups.

But after the fall migration back to Florida in 2011, and during the early months of 2012, the duo of #11 and #15 seemed to transition from two individual birds in a large group, into an established pair with an established territory in Florida that centered on the Tallahassee-area pond. Confirmation of their pair bond came after they returned to Wisconsin in March 2012 and were discovered building a nest together.

They were observed incubating an egg on April 27th, but by May 6th the egg had disappeared. This was not unexpected for “such young and inexperienced parents,” according to The Journey North’s biographical notes on these cranes.

Their Winter Territory

Back in Florida again, the pair spent their winter nights – most of them anyway – roosting in that shallow pond in the middle of a pasture. This is on the very edge of suburban Tallahassee, and the cranes share the field and pond with about 100 cows.

A gathering of humans with cameras and binoculars is often on the edge of the field; “usually 12 to 15 people when the weather is good,” according to Karen Willes. Many of them live in the area, but there are numerous visitors from other states and Canada as well, she said.

Is this an unusual location for cranes to adopt as their winter home? I asked Karen that question, and she gave me a map to really “see ” the area. “It’s a VERY unusual location,” she affirmed. “Move the map around to see how close it is to the middle of town. Also look to the right of the pond to see how much open land there is . . .There’s LOTS of room for them to forage then return to the pond to roost.”

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond pair at dawn, March 6, the day before leaving on migration north. Compare the sizes: whooper to Canada goose! (Photo by Karen Willes)

This is the kind of situation that gives nightmares to the professionals in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). “It’s an understatement to say that we have been alarmed and amazed at their choice of wintering ground,” wrote Brooke Pennypacker, in a Field Journal entry a year ago. An OM pilot, Brooke is someone who knows these cranes better than anyone. He knows full well the dangers they face in the wild, and the danger, posed by living too close to the human world.

A Job for A Citizen Scientist

This was also a situation that would require, ideally, very close monitoring, which would be impractical, if not downright impossible, for the partners of WCEP to provide. And this is where the citizen scientist inside Karen Willes began to emerge.

Karen was already familiar with the work of Operation Migration. She followed their work in the news when they first brought crane chicks to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife refuge at Crystal River. Once OM began to bring some of the cranes to St. Marks, not that far from Tallahassee, in 2008, Karen was there for the flyovers.

“Except for 2013, I’ve attended every flyover,” she wrote in an email. “It’s an event that brings out many people, on early mornings, often quite cold, for a chance to see the young cranes as they follow the ultralight aircraft to their winter home at St. Marks.”

When she learned that two cranes of 2009 were roosting at the cow pond, Karen, who lived nearby, began to photograph them often during the winter of 2011-2012. Karen told me that she’d been “interested in photography for many years but the addition of a long lens has made wildlife photography and bird photography, in particular, much more accessible and successful.”

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Their leg bands identify the Cow Pond Whoopers; female, 15-9, is on left. (Photo by Karen Willes)

Last year, she said, she added digiscoping to her photography skills; that’s using a spotting scope and photographing through it. Now she also has an adapter that allows her to attach her iPhone to the scope, and show live and closeup images of what the cranes are doing. “That, in particular, was a way to share the whooping cranes with people,” she said.

Wearing Many Hats for Whooping Cranes

It wasn’t long, though, before Karen also found herself drawn increasingly into new roles on behalf of whooping cranes – as an educator of the human visitors, and protector of the cranes. As more and more people found out about the Cow Pond Whoopers, Karen carved out a larger presence for herself at the cow pond.  “I never tire of watching them, and sharing information about them with visitors,” she said.

Karen answers many questions for visitors, and she also provides them with information-to-go: printed cards with contact information for Operation Migration and other agencies, but also with information that is specific to the Cow Pond Whoopers, including websites where interested people can pull up the life histories of these birds. Although she has had input from others, Karen has basically designed and paid for these materials, and others, herself.

To protect the birds from too much human activity Karen has done several things. “I arrive early and stay late so that people who might want to get closer to them ‘to get a better picture’ would have no reason to because it is too dark for their photographic equipment.” She has also designed signs with information about the endangered species that these birds are part of, and the reasons it is necessary for asking people to keep their distance from them. With permission from the property owner, the signs are posted at intervals along the property line.

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

“We have asked people to stay behind the signs and not approach the fence in order to keep distance from the birds,” she said. Karen explained to me that the distance from the birds is, at most 200 yards, (a bit less from certain perspectives) which is the Officially Approved Distance that people who encounter a whooping crane in the wild are asked to observe. It seems amazing, but Karen said that in four years of closely watching the Cow Pond Whoopers, “they have never acknowledged people, nor reacted to anything we do.”

Documenting the Cow Pond Whoopers

For the last two winter seasons Karen has taken on yet another citizen science task: documenting the details of the Cow Pond whoopers daily comings and goings. “I went to the pond twice a day as often as I could and noted the time they left in the morning and the time they returned in the evening. My notes read like an airline schedule — 6:57 a.m. departure / 5:33 p.m. arrival — along with any unusual happenings or other wildlife in the area. I documented them all winter, November 30, 2013 through their last day — March 7, 2014.”

When she couldn’t be at the pond, Karen had a crew of helpers, including members of the Apalachee Audubon Society to take turns on “Whooper Watch.” Two years of data for this whooper pair have now been sent to both Operation Migration and the International Crane Foundation. This year the cranes arrived late, January 3, 2015, but again, left on March 7th. Karen continued to visit the cow pond in the evening for a few days into the next week, on the chance they might show up again, and to share what she knows with the others that inevitably came, still hoping to see the cranes.

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willis)

The Cow Pond Pair at dusk, March 6, 2015; the night before their departure on migration north. (Photo by Karen Willes)

As visitors came to realize that the cranes really had left on migration, Karen said they began to reflect on the unique opportunities they had been witnessing. Some had known about the cranes but had not really paid attention to them — until this year. They thanked her for her commitment to the birds and for the information she provided as they “learned something” they didn’t know before. That was exactly what she wanted to hear! “I hope others will catch on to the need to document the birds in their areas,” said Karen, “so we can have lots of citizen scientists out there to educate visitors and protect these birds.”

Bird Watching Daily Reports on Wisconsin and our Cranes

The editors at Bird Watching Daily have covered the story of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes twice this fall. This recent post at birdwatchingdaily.com discusses the DAR (Direct Autumn Release) chicks at Horicon Marsh and environmental photojournalist Tom Lynn.

The chicks were released near adult cranes at Horicon on October 24, and will hopefully soon be following the adults to Florida. Lynn, from Milwaukee, has been granted what Bird Watching Daily calls “unprecedented access to the DAR birds,” and hopes to follow them and document their journey south.

Earlier this fall, Bird Watching Daily’s managing editor, Matt Mendenhall, attended the annual Whooping Crane Festival based in Berlin, WI, with side trips to Necedah, Baraboo, and Green Lake. Over that weekend, he reports, he saw a total of 17 whooping cranes – a number that would have been unheard of a short time ago. He called the weekend a true celebration of the efforts to re-introduce the cranes here, and his report, “A Weekend for watching and celebrating Whooping Cranes” is well worth a look.