On the Road with Dr. George Archibald, ICF’s Founder

Dr. George Archibald, one of the founders of the International Crane Foundation, has been retired from his duties as ICF’s President and CEO for a decade and half now, but he’s anything but retired when it comes to travel, meetings, and speaking on behalf of the world’s cranes. Just a glance at “Travels with George” – a feature at ICF’s website, makes it clear what a world traveler he is. His many trips are sure to involve meetings and lectures about ICF, the cranes, and conservation issues that affect the cranes – and all of us.

I learned recently through a Google Alerts (for news about whooping cranes) that Dr. Archibald – George, to his many friends and followers all over the world – was in Southwest Florida this weekend, speaking about ICF and whooping cranes on the Isles of Capri, and it served as a reminder that now might be a good time to review just a few of the many trips described by George in the past two years.

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012. (Photo by Kathlin Sickel)

George Archibald, after a speaking engagement at The Ridges Sanctuary in Door County in July 2012.

It was also a reminder to check on and report where else he might be talking in early 2015. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at The Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor in 2012 and the depth and breadth of information he has to share, and his relaxed, storytelling style made it an experience I highly recommend to anyone.

Whatever George is talking about – whether it’s the historical development of conservation in North America, the indelible influence of Aldo Leopold on that history, or the characteristics of the world’s 15 species of cranes, or their beauty and power to bring people together to tackle tricky environmental issues – whether some of that, or all of it, you’ll enjoy yourself, and learn a lot too. Isn’t that a winning combination?

Dr. Archibald’s executive assistant at ICF sent me the following dates for two upcoming crane festivals where he will be a featured speaker. If you’re anywhere near the Texas gulf coast a month from now there will be two opportunities to meet and hear George at the Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival. On Friday evening, Feb. 20th, he will be joined by two other ICF colleagues – Dr. Barry Hartup, ICF’s crane veterinarian and Dr. Liz Smith who is ICF’s whooping crane conservation biologist, on location in coastal Texas. The trio will present “All You Ever Wanted to Know About Whooping Cranes,” from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. This is a free event.

You can also meet George Sunday morning as he will serve as the tour guide on the 4 1/2-hour Whooping Crane Boat Tour which leaves from Fisherman’s Wharf, Port Aransas, at 8 a.m., Feb. 22nd. There are Whooping Crane Boat Tours each day of the festival, but the one Sunday morning is the only one George is leading. There is a $50 per person charge for the boat tour.

In March, George will be the keynote speaker at the Monte Vista Crane Festival in southern Colorado. He will present his talk, “To the Heights with Cranes: Cranes of the Mountains,” Saturday evening, March 14th, 7:30 p.m., at the Vali 3 Theater. A donation is suggested.

The festival celebrates the Greater Sandhill Cranes – “part of the 20,000 strong Rocky Mountain flock that spends part of each spring and fall in the San Luis Valley. . .” The cranes migrate between the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and the Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Idaho.

It will be interesting to watch what other trips will be developing for George in this new year. I expect there’ll be many, but the only one to date, that I’ve seen described is a trip in June to Mongolia. It’s a trip that George has already taken several times, and is one that he leads as a tour guide (if you have an inclination to join an adventure trip like this, contact ICF for the details.)

Here are a few words from George about last year’s Mongolia tour: “Thousands of Demoiselle Cranes breed on grasslands across Mongolia, and perhaps as many as 1000 threatened White-naped Cranes live on wetlands in the northeast. ICF is helping our sister organization, “The Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia, in their comprehensive research on White-naped Cranes.”

In 2013 and ’14 George’s travels included such close to home trips as Ottawa, New York, Louisiana, Texas, Florida and South Carolina, and these more exotic locations: Japan, Russia, China, Bhutan, Thailand, North Korea, Zambia, India, and Australia. He has friends to see and work to do in each place. Capsule descriptions are all at Travels with George – for your armchair travels, too.

What Makes You Feel Grateful This Year?

It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S., and in a world filled with so much to worry about, there are also, if we think about it, numerous things to give thanks for. Here are three things, related to this blog, for which I’m grateful today.

First, for the lovely discovery – made just this week by five young whooping cranes – of the joy of long distance flight. Until Tuesday, these young whooping crane colts, known as the Class of 2014, had flown only a handful of miles together on this, their first ever migration flight. This was almost exclusively due to impossible weather conditions (for the aircraft and cranes to fly together).  However, on the few days with perfect conditions the colts seemed to have perhaps forgotten what was learned during their summer training sessions in Wisconsin.

But that all changed Tuesday, when they followed an ultralight for 65 miles and on Wednesday when they did it again. Click on the links to read all about the lead pilots’ reports for each day: ” . . . . “these migration flights were in them the whole time,” wrote OM’s Brooke Penneypacker, “just waiting for the right conditions to appear, and once again impress us all with their magic, their grandeur, and their amazing gifts.”

The second thing I’m grateful for today is my personal discovery this year, through this blog, of John Muir (as well as the very active Wisconsin Friends of John Muir). Of course I wasn’t “discovering” Muir for the very first time when I wrote about him here, in January, but it was the beginning of really getting to know the details of his life, his personal odysseys in the wilderness of the Great Lakes areas, then in the west in the Sierra Nevada, as well as Alaska. And to appreciate what his personal dedication to the beauty of natural wonders has left this country.

Finally, I’m grateful for Yosemite National Park in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, which I believe could adequately be described as Muir’s lifelong muse. Before the Yosemite Valley was Muir’s muse, though, it served that function for pioneer photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916).

Watkins’ prints of Yosemite’s valleys, waterfalls, massive rock faces, and majestic trees, provided some of the world’s first pictures of that special place. Yesterday I saw an exhibit of Watkins’ exquisite Yosemite photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (on display through February 1, 2015), and that reminded me of my gratitude for Yosemite.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, California, ca 1865 (at Wikimedia).  On exhibit until Feb. 1, 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, California, ca 1865 (at Wikimedia). On exhibit until Feb. 1, 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The photos on display are primarily from the Special Collections Library at Stanford University, according to ArtDaily.org: “It was partly due to the artistry and rugged beautify of these photographs that President Lincoln signed a bill on June 30, 1864, declaring the valley inviolate and initiating the blueprint for the nation’s national park system.” And then along came John Muir, who was soon eager to expand on that vision.

Ask the Experts: Backpack Transmitters &; Genetic Bottlenecks

Last week I posted a second report about the Ask the Experts live online chat all about whooping cranes – a chat that the Wisconsin DNR held on Oct. 31st; and I wrote that I would post again soon about other topics that came up in the one-hour Ask the Experts program.

This is the third and final Ask the Experts post. There are links to connect to the first two – about the current migration season, the 2014 nesting season, and whoopers in Louisiana – at the end of this post. The transcript of the whole chat is online at the DNR website (select the link from the “Completed Events” box on the right side of the screen).

The experts hosting the chat were Davin Lopez, whooping crane coordinator for the DNR, Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, and the International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski (field tracking manager) and Sara Gavney Moore (communications specialist).

Backpacks? On Birds?

If the words above surprise you, you’re not alone. I was surprised to learn that small packs – holding smaller still cellular transmitters – that can be attached to birds by a single teflon ribbon are proving to be of help to the study of, and tracking of many avian species. They’ve been used with the snowy owls that are frequent winter visitors all over the northern U.S. They have also been used by the International Crane Foundation on released sandhill cranes and with ICF’s captive whooping cranes. There is hope that backpack transmitters might develop into a cost-effective answer for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s need to keep track of 100 wild whooping cranes in Wisconsin and all along the migration route. Currently WCEP uses very expensive satellite transmitters on some of the birds, and not-so-effective radio transmitters that can only reveal the location of a bird if it’s very close.

WCEP seeks to track all of its whooping cranes - 100 in the Eastern Migratory Population and 27 in Louisiana; very challenging once they are released into the wild. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

WCEP seeks to track all of its whooping cranes – 100 in the Eastern Migratory Population and 27 in Louisiana; very challenging once they are released into the wild.
(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So Operation Migration was asked to fit 3 of their ultralight-trained chicks with the transmitters and backpacks, to see how it would go; and also to compare the flight performance of those fitted with backpacks to the 4 who were without them. OM Pilot Joe Duff wrote all about this at the Field Journal in September, explaining the limitations of the current tracking devices and the hopes for a better answer; and the pros and cons of experimenting with the ultralight chicks. “In the end,” he said, “if we don’t try, we won’t learn anything.”

What they learned soon enough – after four or five attempted training sessions – is that the young whoopers with the backpacks were unwilling to follow the airplane for “more than a few hundred yards from the pen.” The problem, as described by Duff, was this: “they seem to disrupt the airflow over the bird’s back. That pulls the feathers up destroying the lift as well as creating drag.”

At Ask the Experts chat OM’s Heather Ray responded to a question about the backpacks being too heavy for the ultralight-trained whoopers. They aren’t “too heavy, as much as they disrupted the laminar airflow over their backs while in flight,” she responded, also noting that they have been used successfully “on many other species, i.e. Snowy owls and Sandhill cranes.

Another chat guest wondered about ” . . . plans to try the backpacks on adult whoopers? Their flight profile would be somewhat different from the colts – more gliding than flap-flight.” Davin Lopez responded that there have been discussions about that, “but for now the plans are to continue using them on sandhills and carefully observing them in flight for any issues.”

There was a question about how many of the birds in this Eastern Migratory Population have functioning transmitters, allowing them to be tracked. “About 60 birds,” said Eva. “We do post monthly updates that include maps showing the birds’ general location on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s website.

I asked how tracking is done during migration, wondering how it’s even possible to try to follow all the adult cranes up and down the migration route. “We try to check birds 2-3 times a week,” Eva responded, “and rely heavily on outside reports and cooperators for information. We get aerial support for surveys from the DNR and Windway Aviation, including a couple of tracking flights down the migration route.”

Another asked if all the DNR agencies in all the states along the Eastern Migratory route were capable and willing to help track the cranes. Not all other agencies have tracking equipment, Eva answered, but “we do have DNR assistance in a number of the states.”

So, that’s what’s new about tracking the EMP cranes. Now, for a brief look at how important the right genes are to the survival of the species.

What is the Genetic Bottleneck?

This is an issue that’s rather straight forward – easy enough to understand, and explain to others. But just think of the myriad challenging details for those whose job it is to oversee genetic diversity among the world’s whooping cranes.

Here’s the easy part: because the number of whooping cranes in the entire world dropped to only 21 individual birds in 1941 – there were 15 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, and 6 more in the remnants of a flock in Louisiana – each one of the approximately 600 whooping cranes in existence today is descended from that tiny handful of ancestor cranes. Thus, there is only a minimal amount of genetic diversity protecting them.

Whooping crane pairs in captive populations are carefully matched with the goal of genetic diversity driving the decision. This  pair was photographed at the International Crane Foundation, by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP.

Whooping crane pairs in captive populations are carefully matched with the goal of genetic diversity driving the decision. This
pair was photographed at the International Crane Foundation, by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP.

The Experts were asked to explain more about it in two questions: “How many generations (or years or broods) might it take before natural genetic mutation occurs and the bottleneck “changes shape?” There is no certainty about how long that might take, Davin responded, “but since they are long-lived birds with slow reproductive rates it would likely take a long time.”

Another asked if he would “expand on natural genetic mutation and the “bottleneck?” Davin said: “All the whoopers in existence are from a very low number of distinct genetic profiles (a bottleneck), over time, genes mutate naturally creating new profiles that diversify the gene pool, and potentially increase the resilience of a population.”

And Eva offered a document online at ICF “that talks about genetic drift.” If you take a look at that document, you might think at first that it’s a job posting – for a “Species Survival Plan Coordinator,” but don’t be fooled by that. It’s really a 10-page “workbook” – part Genetics 101 and part Genetics for Endangered Species. Among other things it describes a multitude of factors that curators of captive populations must consider when playing the matchmaker for a pair of whooping cranes; the goal is always to pass on more genetic diversity to the next generation.

Although this concludes my writing about the Ask the Experts program, I’m sure it won’t be the last post to quote from things that I’ve learned there.

More from Ask The Experts:

All About Ultralight Migration   and    The EMP Nesting Season & Louisiana’s New Whoopers

Ask the Experts: The EMP Nesting Season & Louisiana’s Whoopers

Two weeks ago I posted about the Ask the Experts live online chat that the Wisconsin DNR held on Oct. 31st about whooping cranes; the post covered all the chatter – questions and comments – about various aspects of the ultralight migration, and I wrote there that I would post again soon about all the other topics that came up in the one-hour Ask the Experts chat.

There was a lot, really. I won’t try to cover everything that was brought up, but there is a much to say about four particular topics. I’ll cover two of them in this post: first, black flies and the nesting season of the whoopers in Wisconsin, and second, the efforts by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to establish a new flock of wild whooping cranes in Louisiana. In a final “Ask the Experts” post, I’ll cover two more: tracking cranes with backpack transmitters, and the issue of genetic bottlenecks.  You can find links to the other “Ask the Experts” posts at the end of this one

The complete transcript of Ask the Experts is online, thanks to the DNR. The experts hosting the chat were Davin Lopez, whooping crane coordinator for the DNR, Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, and the International Crane Foundation’s Eva Szyszkoski (field tracking manager) and Sara Gavney Moore (communications specialist).

Black Flies, Bti Treatments, and Nesting Season

Last year’s Ask the Experts whooping crane chat was distinguished by (as i recall it) many detailed, probing questions asking ‘when’ and ‘if’ and ‘why’ or ‘why not’ would Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, or Bti, (a naturally occurring soil bacterium insecticide) be used to treat the anticipated outbreak of black flies during the cranes’ next nesting season. I was impressed by the level of knowledge, about both the issue and the proposed treatment, that the participants brought to the chat. And I was also impressed with the determination of the experts to essentially “leave no stone unturned” in their studying the issue before making a firm decision about this.

Whooping crane pair with a tiny chick on the nest. (Photo couresty Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership)

Whooping crane pair with a tiny chick on the nest. (Photo courtesy Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership)

So what happened next? I’ll offer here a short summary of a very complicated issue and the series of events that made up the 2014 whooping crane nesting season. This is something that certainly requires a post of its own before 2015’s nesting season. For now, though, here’s a short version:

A decision was made not to use the Bti (which had been used experimentally in the 2011 nesting season with some apparent success), leaving a group of dissatisfied people who closely follow the progress of the whooping cranes. The experts that make up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership had decided on an alternative to using an insecticide – which would, they contended, alter the ecology of the habitats for all the wildlife at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, for the benefit of just one species.

Their plan, instead was to attempt to manipulate the cranes nesting behavior by removing the eggs from one half of the cranes first nests. These cranes would likely build new nests and lay more eggs. By the time of the second nests, the annual “black fly bloom” would be over, and the pesky insects would not be present to torment the cranes sitting on nests.

Frankly, that seemed like a creative potential solution to me, but in spring 2014 Mother Nature was creative too, essentially muting the experiment. The cold spring meant that the black fly bloom didn’t occur at all during the first nesting season (13 chicks were hatched, one survives the dangers in the wild that befell the other 12). There wasn’t much of a second nesting season and by then, I believe, the black flies were indeed a-blooming.

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo couresty Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

Whooping Crane eggs in incubators (Photo courtesy Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center)

So. Back to this year’s chat: there a few questions about using Bti, (but nothing like the many asked a year ago) the first being, really, why not just use it “on the dreaded black flies?” Davin Lopez, the Wisconsin DNR’s whooping crane coordinator agreed that it was a possibility, “if we can get the permits, but we are currently exploring changing nest phenology as a way to get around the black fly issue.”

“What is changing nest phenology?” he was asked, and  explained that it meant removing eggs from the nest (and raising in captivity any chicks that result) to force renesting.

Two more questions concerned the renesting. Not all the pairs that have had their eggs removed will do that, Davin affirmed, and Heather Ray of Operation Migration fielded a similar question: ” . . .will the birds renest that same season after the flies are gone?”

“Occasionally, yes,” said Heather. “It really depends on how far along in the gestational process the original eggs were.”

Let’s move on now to –

The Whooping Cranes in Louisiana

If last year’s whooping crane chat was dominated by questions about Bti treatments, the one two years ago (the first one I ever participated in) seemed to be all about the efforts to establish a new flock of wild whooping cranes in Louisiana. There were a lot of questions about it; and some concerns that it might be taking chicks away from our Wisconsin-based Eastern Migratory Population (EMP)?

The Louisiana efforts began in 2011, with two different cohorts of birds sent from the captive populations of whooping cranes to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Unlike the EMP, the Louisiana flock will be non-migratory. But what it does share with the EMP is that they are both managed by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and both seek to advance the same over-arching goal – to establish a new self-sustaining flocks of wild whooping cranes.

A whooping crane chick arriving for the Crane Restoration project in Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

A whooping crane chick arriving for the Crane Restoration project in Louisiana. (Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries)

This year’s participants wanted to know how many birds are in the Louisiana flock right now (27 individual birds) and when will the next cohort be transferred from the captive population at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and how many individual birds will be in it? (13 or 14 new chicks are due to be transferred into the Louisiana flock in early December).

There was a question about where would these 13 or 14 chicks come from and “why such a large number compared to the other programs?” Heather Ray explained that each reintroduction flock (the EMP and the one in Louisiana) gets an equal number of birds, but the chicks allocated to the EMP get split up for three different release methods: the ultralight-led class, the direct autumn release method, and, for the second year in a row now, a release of 4 chicks that have been parent-reared at Patuxent.

Why have a non-migrating flock? Historically there was a non-migratory flock in Louisiana, Davin Lopez answered. “The cranes do not need to migrate, “due to the ecology of the area . . . We are trying to reintroduce the same type of population.”

More from “Ask the Experts:”

Ultralight Migration          Tracking the Cranes & Genetic Bottlenecks

More Mixed-Up Migration News

At last, the sun has come out in Wisconsin, and nasty weather has calmed down long enough for the ultralights of Operation Migration to take off and fly to the next stopover site with two of the seven whooping cranes. That’s right, only 2 of the 7 cranes made the ultralight-guided journey to the next stop. It is posted on the OM Field Journal that the other 5 cranes will be crated and driven to the new pen site.

As disappointing as that must be for the pilots and crew, the change of scenery, and reality of a new site, and moving the whole migration project down the road another 28 miles, must feel wonderful. They have only one more stop planned in Wisconsin. They’re that much closer to Illinois, that much closer to the 117 miles of the journey in Wisconsin behind them, that much closer to Florida!

The two cranes that made the flight today (3-14 and 8-14, in case you are following that closely) flew for 42 minutes and covered 28 miles with the ultralights – the longest flight of their lives, thus far, I believe. There are much longer flights to come, but these two should be in good shape for the challenge. Somehow – I know from following this saga for a long time now – the rest will be taught what they need to know; they’ll make it safely into the South, and they’ll return to Wisconsin on their own next spring.

(For more information I urge you to check out the Field Journal tomorrow; OM often will analyze the flight and share observations a day or so after.)

The Aransas/Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane Migration

In other migration news, four individual cranes of the western flock of whooping cranes – that’s the long-established and back-from-the-brink, Aransas /Wood Buffalo flock – made an early and unexpected arrival in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The four, all adults, were first spotted by a fishing guide at Sundown Bay on the refuge on Sept. 11, and were confirmed by refuge staff on Sept. 15. According to the Friends of the Wild Whoopers blog the arrival was a month earlier than former early arrivals.

Here is an historic photo of whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refute was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.  (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

Here is a historic photo of whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refute was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane. (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

Until October 23rd, those early four were the only sightings of the Aransas Wood Buffalo flock, and some whooper-watchers were beginning to ask ‘”Is Whooping Crane Migration Late this Year?” No, not really, answers Chester McConnell of Friends of the Wild Whoopers.

The blog included a post in September, written by Wade Harrell, the U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, full of facts and figures about the migration of the western flock. For starters, the length of migration for these whoopers is 2500 miles – more than 1,000 miles longer than the migration undertaken by Wisconsin’s whooping cranes.

Eyewitness Account from a Migration Volunteer

In late July The Badger & the Whooping Crane published a post entitled “This Could Be Yours: a Two-Week Vacation with the Whooping Cranes,” detailing an offer from Operation Migration to sign up for a two-week stint as a helper with the many on-the-ground tasks that must be carried out during the fall migration trip. It’s a trip of 1100 miles that the ultralights and the cranes make in the air. But it’s assisted from the ground in hundreds – maybe thousands of little ways. Operation Migration filled 6 2-week slots with volunteers and this week they shared this post at their Field Journal from volunteer Steve Schildwachter. He does a fine job of conveying all the “hurry up and wait” assignments that go into ultralight-assisted whooping crane migration.

Migration Update & Good News about Single Dad Whooping Crane & Chick

The news thus far this whooping crane migration season, has been decidedly mixed, with an early start in some instances, slow progress in others, and what has seemed like no progress at all for the young whooping crane chicks that follow the ultralights. After such a hopeful start to the ultralight migration two weeks ago, the weather in Wisconsin has kept the ultralight airplanes, the seven young whooping cranes that follow them, and their ultralight pilot-guides and ground crews on the ground day after day in Marquette County. Those of us who live in Wisconsin are well aware how little we’ve seen of the sun since September began! It’s no surprise here that this has translated into a long string of “no fly” days. But bad weather can’t last forever – that’s the silver lining for the ultralight chicks.

Mild and bright fall days - good migration days - like this one have been almost completely absent in 2014. (Photo was taken in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine in October 2013 )

Mild and bright fall days – good migration days – like this one have been almost completely absent in 2014. (Photo was taken in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine in October 2013 )

And in other migration news, the official beginning of migration for the rest of the Eastern Migratory Population (the EMP) was announced at the International Crane Foundation’s Facebook page on Thursday. ICF’s Eva Szyszkoski had tracked seven of Wisconsin’s cranes to Greene County, Indiana.

Embedded in Eva’s report was the exceptionally good news that the EMP’s one surviving wild chick, and the chick’s male parent were among those cranes. There’s been little news about this special pair of cranes – the single surviving wild chick of 2014 (#w3-14) and her father (#12-02) – since late August when the sad news about the disappearance (and presumed death) or the mother crane, #19-04, was announced. (The Badger & the Whooping Crane offered some history of the crane family in the post, “A Single Parent Whooping Crane.”)

In its September Update the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership noted that on September 8, crane w3-14 had been captured for banding (and released). Now comes this new sighting of the crane chick and the father on migration, and it’s a real cause for celebration.

Good Memories: Warblers and Whooping Cranes

Officially – on the calendar anyway – it’s still summer for another two weeks, even though most of Summer 2014 is now in our memories, lots of it probably fading fast. In the spirit of capturing some of the season’s best, I’m going to record some memories from my Natural Resources Foundation field trip back at the beginning of summer – Memorial Day weekend.

Usually that’s a good time to head for the Door Peninsula – northeastern Wisconsin’s best known natural resource. But this year I got in my car on Friday of the holiday weekend and drove west – the opposite direction – to join an NRF Field Trip featuring both whooping cranes and Kirtland’s warblers. Experts who work with these two endangered birds here in Wisconsin were leading an expedition of birders & other enthusiasts into the habitats where these rare creatures can be found.


NRF field trippers lined up their scopes to catch sight of the Kirtland’s warbler in Adams County. (May, 2014)

Driving west across Wisconsin’s early summer landscape – it was a green, sunny day, and warm – I was full of happy anticipation. I could hardly wait to see some of the whooping cranes that live in the wild in Wisconsin.

Field Trips to Wisconsin’s Natural Resources 

Every spring, summer, and fall, the NRF offers over 100 expert-guided field trips, to natural places in every region of the state. They are of varying activities, and activity levels, – there must be something for everyone. Hence, these trips have become very popular, and many are booked to capacity long before they occur.

I had been on a waiting list for the Warblers and Whooping Cranes trip, which added to my sense of good fortune that day. But I should confess the obvious right here – I was on the trip, first and foremost, to see the whooping cranes; I knew next to nothing about the Kirtland’s warblers, and had little interest. But that was about to change.

I should also add that the sightings we enjoyed of whooping cranes were few, and very, very far away. Even though that was not what I was hoping for as I drove west, it turned out not to matter so much.

Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist with WI DNR, explains the Kirtland Warbler habitat on our NRF field trip.

Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist with WI DNR, explains the Kirtland Warbler habitat on our NRF field trip.

The Saturday morning tour of the Kirtland’s warbler breeding territory in Adams County, and the sighting of a single, singing Kirtland high above us, followed by the afternoon guided tour of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, combined with the pleasure of touring with some of the experts of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – all those things added up to a wonderful experience.

Learning About Kirtland’s Warblers . . .

The two-day field trip began at a Wisconsin Rapids hotel with a Friday night program that was packed with information about the ongoing, intensive efforts to save these two endangered species. I quickly learned from the presentation of Kim Grveles, Avian Ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR, and an expert on the warblers, that it would be impossible to learn about the Kirtland’s big conservation story and not develop an interest in this pretty little bird. With charts, maps and photos, Kim showed the growing success for the species as the birds’ limited breeding ground in northern lower Michigan spread – beginning in 1995 – into the state’s Upper Peninsula, and then, since 2007, into Wisconsin, as well as Ontario.

Then Kim told us about the parasitic cowbirds, and their role in suppressing the Kirtland’s warblers. I don’t think many there knew much about the cowbirds, and certainly not that they are considered  parasites to the nests of the smaller warblers. (More explanation to come.)

. . . and Whooping Cranes

The International Crane Foundation’s Director of Field Ecology, Jeb Barzen, (Jeb works with cranes in Southeast Asia and China, as well as here in the midwest,) then reviewed the history of efforts to save the whooping crane species – noting that efforts to help an endangered species can just kind of “bump along” for a lengthy period of time before they finally seem to “just take off.” The Kirtland’s warbler species was now enjoying a period of “really taking off” Jeb said, adding hopeful assurance that the whooping crane species may see that day, too.

The impressive new (in 2011) energy-efficient Visitor Center of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge is home to more than 80 whooping cranes, with lots of marsh and meadow hide-aways for them.  (All the photos with this post by Kathlin Sickel, for "The Badger & the Whooping Crane.")

The impressive new (in 2011) energy-efficient Visitor Center of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is home to more than 80 whooping cranes, with lots of marsh and meadow hide-aways for them. (All the photos with this post were made by Kathlin Sickel, for “The Badger & the Whooping Crane.”)

Jeb reminded us that when the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team began to put together a plan for the species “they were quick to realize the need for two populations,” to improve its’ chances. Then he enumerated various efforts at establishing the hoped-for second population, and the things learned from those attempts. These included (in the mid-1970s to mid-80s) a Rocky Mountain population which relied on sandhill cranes to raise and teach the migration route to whooping cranes, with the result of whoopers imprinting so thoroughly on the sandhills they never paired and never reproduced with other whooping cranes.

And in the 90s, an attempt to establish a non-migrating flock in Florida, met with unacceptable levels of adult mortality. To date, Jeb said, the Eastern Migratory Population (the Wisconsin cranes) has been the most successful – they learn the migration route well and almost all return back here every spring, they show good survival rates in adulthood, and they pair up well with each other. And yet, their very-low rate of raising chicks to fledging has all the whooping crane professionals still trying to puzzle out a lasting solution for this group.

The above is the briefest of summaries of what we were learning Friday night. The information continued to flow all day Saturday. I hope to capture some Saturday highlights in the photos below.


Very early the next morning – most of us toting coffee, light jackets, and binoculars – we divided into four groups and boarded the vans driven by NRF staff and headed out to a pine tree plantation that included a significant growth of jack pines – prime Kirtland’s warbler habitat.

The pine tree habitat we visited (in the photo below), was a mixture of red pine, and the jack pine which is critical for the Kirtland’s warbler. Kim Grveles pointed out the difference:  the jack pine are the “scrubbier” trees in the foreground.  Behind them and to the left are the fuller, bushy red pines.





The Cowbirds

Look closely, and you will see a screened enclosure amid the pine trees (in the top photo, right) and a closer picture of some of the cowbirds, within the enclosure, (below).  This is a temporary home for the cowbirds during the most critical weeks of the Kirtland’s warblers’ breeding season. The cowbirds, when a Kirtland’s mother is temporarily out of the nest, will lay Cowbird eggs in it, and the warbler mother, unable to recognize the bigger eggs as different from her own, will raise the bigger chicks that hatch, to the detriment of her own smaller warbler chicks.  The cowbird chicks will thrive and the warblers will not, and thus the Kirtland’s warbler population has declined as a result.

Because of this “nest parasitism” practiced by cowbirds, every effort is made to trap them – in enclosures like this. These social birds can easily fly in from the top, attracted by the birds already there, but once in, it’s very difficult for them to fly back out.









IMG_2445At Necedah NWR

It was a fascinating morning in the field with DNR and USFWS staff on the warbler territory – and yes, one tiny, bright yellow and gray Kirtland’s warbler was found singing in an Oak tree high above the pine habitat. This was classic male singing behavior by a bird in search of a mate. After hearing the stories, and seeing the pictures of warblers up on a big screen the night before, to see the actual bird, through one of the scopes that were trained on him, was a real thrill – so surprisingly better than the virtual one – and everyone felt it.

After lunch in the welcoming new visitor center at Necedah NWR, we walked the trails (like the one pictured above), that spread out from the center . The prairies, meadows, and wetlands seem to go on indefinitely.

At one point, Jeb Barzen  (in the photo below, right), demonstrated the use of tracking equipment that would have picked up the signal from a banded whooping crane if one had been anywhere near us. But that antenna, held by Jane Easterly, a field trip participant, remained silent throughout.







We all boarded our vans again, but before it was time to head back to the hotel, we spent another hour driving through the back roads of the refuge. Our drivers, from both the NRF and the International Crane Foundation, kept in touch with each other via walkie talkies, and the drivers and passengers both seemed to take turns spotting birds of interest.


Alas, it was never the great white whooping crane, but maybe it was a yellow-throated vireo, or another time a rose-breasted grosbeak, a Baltimore oriole, or a red-headed woodpecker, that caused the four vans to pull over, and all of us to spill out with our binoculars, encouraging each other with directions:  “Over there, the third tree on the left, two-thirds of the way up,” and other suggestions for finding the bird. We were four vans full of happy birders. That was contagious, and seeing so much of Necedah – it’s wetlands and woodlands, seemed to go on forever – that was a wonderful way to start a summer.




Conservation Stories to Pass Along

Here are links to 4 conservation stories – 2 success stories and 2 cautions – of interest and concern to Wisconsinites. They caught my attention through various email sources and I’m sharing them here at The Badger & the Whooping Crane because I know others will enjoy and appreciate them, just as much, and hopefully pass them on to people that they know will appreciate them, as well.

If you only have time for one of these items today, I hope you’ll scroll down and read the last one!

EcoWatch Names Sustainability Champs

In one of my daily emails from EcoWatch – an online source for environmental news that I’m reading more and more – I found a Wisconsin organic food company named to a listing of “The 10 Most Inspirational Sustainability Initiatives in the U.S.” You’ve probably heard of Organic Valley, or know its food products, but did you know that it’s a farmer-owned cooperative based in LaFarge, a small rural community in the western part of the state?

Dairyherd - photo courtesy, Organic Valley.

Dairyherd – photo courtesy, Organic Valley.

You may not know that it began in 1988 with a handful of farmers in Wisconsin’s coulee region concerned about the future of the family farm, and today it includes over 1800 farms spread across the continental U.S. And that it quickly grew into “the number one source for organic milk in the nation.” You can learn a lot more about this organic food local success story at Organic Valley’s data rich website. It’s interactive “Find Your Farmer” tool is fun – that alone is worth a web trip.

Seeing “the big picture” with the LightHawk Pilots

I only occasionally get an email from LightHawk, but when it comes, it’s always interesting. LightHawk is an organization of 200 volunteer pilots who make flights in small aircraft in 32 states and 10 countries on behalf of conservation initiatives. Getting an aerial perspective of the land that will be impacted by a conservation issue, they believe, “changes the way we see Earth. We mobilize volunteer pilots, photographers, environmental experts and storytellers to make images, collect data, inform the public, and share their experiences.”

Their work also includes wildlife surveys and wildlife survival flights. At the LightHawk.org website you can access this fascinating Project Map. Zoom in on Wisconsin and you’ll see that they’ve made 8 flights for the International Crane Foundation, 1 for U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and 1 for a FracTracker project in 2012 and 2013.

Wisconsin Is Putting Public Land Up for Sale?

That’s the message Ann Sayers of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is sharing with her members. Ten thousand acres of Wisconsin public land “is now being sold off to private interests . . .state leaders voted for the first time ever to require that public lands be sold off.”

The WLCV has a lot of good information about this issue at its website, including it’s page “Protecting Wisconsin’s Land,” and a link to this Wisconsin DNR site that describes criteria the DNR has developed to comply with this provision for the land sale which was included in the 2013-2015 state budget.

Last but Never Least: Dispose of Dangerous Fishing Line

And last, I want to include this cautionary tale from Kathleen Harris the Naturalist at Peninsula State Park. Although it’s last, it may be the most important item here today for everyone who is thinking of dipping a fishing line in the waters of Wisconsin – or anywhere! Kathleen’s story was published in the Peninsula Pulse in Door County in May. It ends happily enough, but if not for her quick identification of the problem, and her assistance in removing tangled, nearly invisible fishing line wound around the feet of a tiny bird, it would have been – most likely – the end of that bird.

Kathleen’s simple message: put your wasted fishing line in the trash. It’s such a little thing, but left undisposed of, it can easily harm and kill innocent little living things.