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.)


A New Chapter for Wisconsin Whooping Cranes

A new chapter for whooping cranes opens today, as Operation Migration’s last and final ultralight-led migration wrapped up in Florida yesterday. For OM, and its six young Class of 2015 whoopers, this has been the longest migration ever. As with the fourteen that preceded this one, it has had its own stories and dramas that define it.

The unexpected ending of this particular migration – finally boxing up the birds just 25 miles short of their winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge – might seem an ignoble exit strategy, but not really. It was a necessary strategy demanding extra-stiff-upper-lip-heroics from the crew that loved and lived and flew with the birds. It was just one more small detail in the drama of reintroducing an endangered species, long absent, from a particular landscape. And it was a necessity so that things could move along to the next necessary step.

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more time. Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Yltralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

This is a sight that people in Tallahassee had hoped to see one more time. Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

The prepared pensite was waiting for them at St. Marks, and there were people from Tallahassee and all over the region hoping to get a glimpse of the cranes and ultralights flying overhead. But mostly, for the birds, there was the calendar, saying “it’s February!” The birds needed to be at home in the wetland pen  where they are lightly monitored, and they will learn a few things about life on their own in preparation for their NEXT migration: their first independent flight north to Wisconsin. That migration will begin sometime in March, or possibly, April.

You can totally immerse yourself in more of the drama of this story at The Operation Migration Field Journal. Look especially at the posts where OM’s gifted pilots turn into gifted writers, as well. This is where you’ll learn from Brooke’s long musing report of his last flight (Day 102 . . . The Last Waltz) that “denial” is really just “hope spelled backwards.” (Who could not say ‘Amen!’ to that?)

You can learn about the competitive, not-really-a-team-player bird, #2-15, in Driving Miss Crazy. Or Joe’s description of clearing the trees at the end of the runway last Saturday, only to have his ultralight turned sideways by a blast of wind, and a few more thoughts about the conclusion of his avian aviator career – one of the world’s most unique job titles.

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

This older file photo depicts an ultralight training flight at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of WCEP)

And read today’s post from Heather, “Carry On . . .” explaining how she joined up with OM 18 years ago, and began to post online about the work; how soon after people began following, and thus, “Craniacs were born!” And her final tribute to the reason for it all:

” . . .Whooping cranes – Regal. Noble. Majestic. Magnificent. Fly free my feathered friends. Live long. . .” she wrote.

Like all good stories, the new chapter for whooping cranes will begin with dozens of pressing questions. Like these: Without ultralight flights, what IS Operation Migration’s new contribution to the effort? What kind of future is there for the 100 whooping cranes in the eastern flyway stretching from Wisconsin to Florida? Will the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) hold? Will WCEP continue to track and monitor these birds?

And:  What happens now to the costume-rearing technique? What IS really known about these Wisconsin whoopers’ so-called “lack of parenting skills?” Will the hundreds – no, thousands, probably – of craniacs spontaneously created as a byproduct of this project, remain tuned in? Where are the two new wild whooper families now? The ones that were sighted by Wisconsin birders repeatedly last fall at Necedah NWR?

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015. (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

This is the way young whooping cranes have been trained in Wisconsin to fly with ultralights and learn a migration route from 2001 through 2015.    (Paul K. Cascio photographer, USGS Multimedia Gallery)

And, for that matter, just what IS going on with the weather – and is it “weather” or is it “climate?” – the thing that seems to have grounded flight after flight this year; and last year too, come to think of it? And, oh, by the way, what about the Whooping Crane Festival? Will there be one again in Princeton, Wisconsin, come September?

So many questions today! And these are the building blocks of tomorrow’s stories, waiting to be told.

Ultralight-led Migration Ends: Will a New Role Begin for OM?

So. Joe Duff had this to say this morning

                                                             “That’s All She Wrote”

Yes, it IS the bad news that every craniac fervently hoped not to hear this week:  the end of the ultralight flights – and Operation Migration leading a new class of young whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida each year.

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. The Class of 2009 was one of the very biggest of UL classes. One of the females of this class did raise a chick to fledge in 2015. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permissioin)

The Fly-Over of the Class of 2009, on arrival at St. Marks NWR, January 13, 2010. This was one of the very biggest of UL classes, and includes some well-known birds.  Among the group are the future Cow Pond Whoopers. This past year one of the females of this class did raise a wild chick to fledge, #10-15. (Photo by Karen Willes; used with permission)

Joe Duff wrote a spectacularly detailed, clear summary of the week’s events leading to this decision, and he dispatched it swiftly so we wouldn’t be left waiting; and wondering. He described the science being looked at as possible answers to the EMP’s slow progress – or as some think, no progress –  in becoming a self-sustaining population.

(What would a self- sustaining population be? One that reproduces itself.  Why can’t the EMP reproduce itself?  That’s where the scientific theories that Joe wrote about, are needed; the theories that are being developed; and will need to be studied and tested.)

Joe also said this: “. . . (during the meetings last week)  we focused on ways to keep released birds with adult role models for as early, and as long as possible “

Somewhere in this Decision is a New Role for OM

And he said:  “There are many ways that Operation Migration can serve within WCEP, including developing a new, less invasive release technique at White River. Those options need to be explored, and expanded.  He mentioned “moving forward” and “clearing hurdles.”      

This WCEP decision, and Joe’s response to it, trigger a number of questions waiting to be asked, and I did get one answer earlier today when OM responded to question/comment I posted on their Facebook page.  

Me:  I hope this means you aren’t all going away!? And OM responded:  “Definitely not going away!” That’s an answer that is definitely going to console some disappointed followers of OM through the Field Jounral, Crane Cam and more.

Others Comment on the End of Ultralight Migration

Here is just a very small sample of comments left on Joe’s post today:

From Mindy:   “You have made such a contribution to the Eastern population and the whole species.  No one can ever take that away.”

Willie said:  “It is rare to see such a level of commitment by humans to save another species . . . I will continue to support Operation Migration any way that I can.”

And Mike:  “A sad result for such a well-coordinated effort. I live in Hardin County, TN and twice during the last three years I have witnessed a flock of the birds migrating north on their own. I thought how lucky I was to see something so rare.”

Here’s Denise:  “Heartbroken. But how can we help support OM? Please let us know.”

“Making a Huge Mistake,” says Wildlife Biologist

And finally, this lengthy quote is from comments left by Robert, a wildlife biologist, retired from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

“For years I have been tracking the efforts to introduce a second, self-sustaining population of whoopers,” said Robert, and his words, the ones that follow here, form a pretty good summary of what The Badger and the Whooping Crane has been thinking. “It is obvious,” he continued, “that the Eastern flock is having issues with raising recruits to fledgling stage. However, to just give up on the aircraft-led migration seems at this stage  to be rather short-sighted . . . I have heard of no other methods that comes close to the OM record of successfully getting birds into a second migrating population.

“So the Eastern flock will just be abandoned to wither away like the Florida non-migrating population while birds are pumped into Louisiana with the same or worse problems.  . . . I just think the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is making a HUGE mistake in canceling OM without a better answer in place.”

Whooping Cranes Wait in Georgia while WCEP Meets in Wisconsin

Just about every craniac on the planet must be wishing he or she could be a fly on the wall during the meetings of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership this week.  These meetings, somewhere in Wisconsin, have been planned for sometime now, to work out the details of the partnership’s vision for the next 5-year plan for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. Certainly, for the craniacs, their hearts are there, even though their eyes and ears can’t be.    

What’s next for the Eastern Migratory Population – the 100 or so wild whooping cranes that now call Wisconsin home? That’s what’s being decided.  And the fate of the ultralight-led migrations that Operation Migration has provided (for anywhere from 6 to 20 whooper chicks) each year since 2001, is one of the many items – and a big one, most likely – that are on the agenda.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

                                Grounded? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

This year there are six young OM-trained whooping cranes  – almost adults now – and they are waiting in southern Georgia, a hop, skip and a jump (140 miles, to be precise) away from their target destination, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. But the birds will wait at least until next Sunday, while the pilots and senior staff of Operation Migration participate in the meetings of the partnership they help direct.

Writing at OM’s Field Journal, the group’s Head Pilot Joe Duff outlined the tough choices necessitated by the conflict between the ongoing migration and the WCEP meetings. In it, he talks about the stresses of the weather-delayed, longer-than-usual migration: these include stresses on staff, the need for added volunteers, the strain for hosts that have agreed to provide space for motor homes, trucks and vans, and a safe and well-hidden place for a temporary pen for the birds – all for an uncertain amount of time.

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Yltralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes "locked" to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

Photographer and Citizen Scientist, Karen Willes, made this lovely photo of the arrival of the Class of 2014 over the town of St. Marks, in December a year ago. Ultralight pilot Brooke Pennypacker had two of the seven cranes “locked” to each wingtip. (Photo used with permission)

And Duff talks about the effect on the birds, waiting in the pen for the right weather, and the human plans to coincide. Will they be eager to follow the ultralights after a long stay in one place?  Or will their flight be numerous attempts at a crane rodeo – rounding them up in the air and on the ground – when the right day finally comes again?  In the end, Duff and his crew made the only decision – “Standing Down Till Sunday . . .”  they probably could.

And what will there be to report when Sunday arrives? Watching this reintroduction of whooping cranes into the wild, using Wisconsin as their nesting territory and Florida, ideally, as a wintering one, you could see the project as a race – a marathon, for sure. And the finish line seems to be getting close, but isn’t quite in sight yet.

There were plans made in 2011 to introduce the cranes into a new nesting territory in Wisconsin, and the success of that plan hasn’t begun to be tested. In a few more years, it would seem to this non-scientist, that the scientific studies might be expected to flow from this new breeding area.

Although ultralight-led migration is just one component of the re-introduction, it was the essential component at the beginning, and has never stopped being a key component. And the pilots and support staff of Operation Migration have always done a job for the birds that has seemed over and above the call of duty – again and again. To give up on this re-introduction and the WCEP partnership now – with so much already invested and so many successful components in place – would seem like . . . well, just giving up. Who’d want to do that? Hopefully, though, that won’t be what happens.

Ed. note:  If you’d like a fuller explanation of the WCEP partnership, Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes is one resource for it.    


USFWS Would Ground the Ultralights?

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

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

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

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

GROUNDED?   (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

[Click on the images to enlarge them.]

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

Making a Five Year Plan for Whooping Cranes

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

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

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

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

OM’s Rebuttal to the New USFWS Vision

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

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE? (Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

(Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

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

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

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

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?

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

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

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.

Four Wisconsin Opportunities to Act for Whooping Cranes

I know of four opportunities coming up in the near future that are an invitation to put your concern for whooping cranes into action. The first one, An Evening with the Cranes at the International Crane Festival, in Baraboo, WI, is coming up fast! It’s an evening for all cranes – not just whoopers –  that supports crane research and conversation of all 15 species of cranes. Details below.

Spend An Evening With the Cranes at ICF

This is the International Crane Foundation’s annual after-hours fundraiser. If you go, you can expect to enjoy the calls of the cranes, along with gourmet food and beverages and access to all the ICF displays from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 20th – the eve of the summer solstice this year. There will be live music performed by human musicians, as well as the “crane music.” Tickets to this event are $50 each, for members of ICF, $75 for non-members. The tickets include admission to ICF all day Saturday, June 20th, and Sunday, June 21st. ICF is the only place on the planet where you can actually see – in one day – birds that represent all 15 of the world’s crane species.

The International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

The International Crane Foundation, near Baraboo. (photo courtesy, ICF)

Partnering organizations helping ICF offer An Evening With the Cranes include, Bekah Kate’s and the Broadway Diner, both from downtown Baraboo, Carr Valley Cheese, Con Amici Wine Bar, Monk’s at the Wilderness in Wisconsin Dells, and Port Huron Brewing Company. And that’s just few of them.

Can You Do Some Heavy Lifting to Prepare for the Class of 2015?

This next opportunity begins the same weekend – the summer solstice weekend – and will finish up in the week that follows. It will exclusively benefit whooping cranes – a handful of very specific, and very important whooping crane chicks: the Class of 2015.

These are the chicks that have just hatched from the eggs of captive whooping cranes at Patuxent Wildlife Life Research Center in Maryland; chicks that are being trained from the beginning to trust and to follow their costumed surrogate parents. These chicks are learning right now to follow motorized trikes (ultralights without their wings), and the white costumes who drive the trikes. Eventually, in Wisconsin, they’ll learn to follow the costumed pilots of the ultralights into the air.

So, what could you do for these little Class of 2015 whooper chicks? You could help Operation Migration, which manages their “flight training,” to get the Wisconsin training site prepared for their arrival at the end of June. OM’s Heather Ray described the work, which will take place in the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, and I’ll just mention a few of the tasks for which OM is recruiting volunteers.

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)

These include: Setting up a camp near the training site, attaching a top net onto both wet and dry pens that will contain the growing chicks, mowing and raking of the runway where they will first fly, preparing the observation blind, and there are quite a few more. If you could lend a hand – and don’t mind wet feet and dirty hands for a few days – you’ll be a part of an intense and rewarding adventure, according to many who have volunteered for OM in the past. (Go here for more information, including how to get in touch.)

The Whooping Crane Festival of 2015

Looking ahead to September, craniacs from Florida to Canada- and beyond – have marked their calendars for September 10th – 13th for the 2015 Whooping Crane Festival. How about you? Events will take place near beautiful Green Lake in the middle of Wisconsin.

The weekend will include speakers, auctions, a marketplace, a welcome dinner, a chance to watch flight training with the Class of 2015, a Saturday night pizza party, a Sunday Morning Bird Walk at White River Marsh, a bus tour of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and also a Birding by Boat tour of the marsh. Details, details, and more details of all these events, and then some, are available at the link, and you will also find a link there to the registration page.

Meet a Flock of Whooping Cranes

If you’re not a member of the International Crane Foundation now, you might want to be one on September 26, 2015, so that you can enjoy all that ICF has to offer at its annual Member Appreciation Day. At this event you can join a behind the scenes tour and see ICF’s flock of whoopers during a stop at Crane City, where breeding takes place each spring. You will also get to meet field staff and learn directly from them about the work that goes on in Crane City all year long.

ICF has a population of 30 captive whooping cranes. Although a whooper pair is usually on display as part of a wonderful visitor’s viewing pavilion at ICF, Member Day is, I believe, the only opportunity to get anywhere near the whole flock. ICF is one of 5 captive breeding centers for whooping cranes in North America, and its flock is second only to Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the original site of a captive breeding program for whooping cranes.