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.

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.

Nesting Season 2015: So Far – So Very Good!

Nesting season this year is producing chicks; lots of them, actually, and also smiles all around, for the smiling craniacss who track the progress of the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers, and, I’m sure, for smiling partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. WCEP, which manages the EMP cranes, issued a press release in mid-May hailing 31 confirmed nests.

They called the number of nests “record-breaking” even though it was only 3 more nests than last year. But in a new Project Update that soon followed, WCEP announced more – 37 confirmed nests, and that truly is a leap forward! There have been 27 breeding pair, and 10 of the pairs have renested after their first nest failed.

Of course, with the large number of nests, the number of chicks is higher, too: last week’s report noted 13 hatched chicks of which 9 were surviving. And more were expected due to the fact that 8 of 10 renesting cranes still had active nests. Yesterday, more happy news was posted on the Facebook page of the International Crane Foundation: now 13 surviving chicks were counted in a new aerial survey by Wisconsin DNR Pilot Beverly Paulan, Tuesday, June 2nd.

The Ever-changing Chick Count

Looking for confirmation of that news, and some more information about the renesting cranes, I found Anne Lacey at ICF, who made it even better news. Here it is, straight from Anne: “Hot off the presses – the Necedah refuge staff confirmed that one pair actually had two chicks, so we confirmed 14 of 20 hatched still alive! Of 8 renests, 6 have hatched chicks! (One failed, one still to go.)”

Look closely for the two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

Look closely for the two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

So, 20 chicks have hatched, and yes, that’s a record. Last year there were 13 hatched chicks, and only one of them survived to fledge. With the 20 that have hatched in 2015 (and 14 confirmed as surviving – as of yesterday) will this year see more than one wild-hatched chick fledge and join the EMP cranes? That is everyone’s fervent hope.

Of particular interest this nesting season, it was reported that there had been 3 sets of twins, among the wild-hatched chicks. And with the new count, it’s now at least four sets. Although whooping cranes typically lay two eggs, it is considered unusual for them to successfully hatch and raise two chicks. In fact, in a Nesting Summary (published with WCEP’s Project Update), it’s clear that two of the sets of twins had already been reduced to a single surviving chick for both.

Are Black Flies Still a Problem?

Also of interest: what about the devilish clouds of black flies that have caused so many crane pair to abandon their nests in self-defense during past nesting seasons? Doug Staller, the Necedah Refuge manager, told the La Crosse Tribune that they haven’t posed much of a problem this year, because there was “only a small bloom” and it disappeared when a cold snap and high winds came in the day after they emerged.

Now the key goal for the EMP is for as many as possible of these chicks to survive to fledge. That’s when they begin to fly – about two months from now. “We are cautiously optimistic,” Heather Ray, Director of Development for Operation Migration said in the WCEP press release, “knowing that for these young birds, the next few months and years of their lives will be perilous.”

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010. (Look at the legs of the crane on the right, chicks are just below.)

Stay tuned, as the facts of possibly more chicks are reported, and expect the inevitable losses, too. In the meantime, here are some biographical details about a few of the new whooping crane parents. Most are from the Meet The Cranes pages of the very educational website, The Journey North.

If you are a confirmed craniac you will of course be familiar with all the number id’s of the cranes that follow below. If you’re relatively new to the story, all these numbers may make you dizzy! But they are fairly self-explanatory: each crane is given a number when it hatches, followed by the year it hatched. If there is a “w” in front of the numbers, the crane has hatched in the wild; the rest have hatched from the eggs of captive populations.

The Cow Pond Whoopers Are a Family Now!

I’ve written before about the Cow Pond Whoopers and their Tallahassee support crew, organized by volunteer Karen Willes. This pair, #11 & 15-09 (from the ultralight class of 2009) have attracted a lot of attention for their unconventional choice of wintering ground in northern Florida. They are parents to the second wild-hatched chick (w2-15) of the year. The pair had their first nest together in 2012, but it soon failed, as did another in 2013. Last year they successfully hatched a chick! But that chick had disappeared by the end of May.


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

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

The new Cow Pond Chick, wild #2 of 2015, already has its own “fan club.” Karen Willes receives reports and photos from DNR pilot Bev Paulan and also from WCEP crane tracker, Eva Szyszkoski. “We craniacs are thrilled every time a survey report is posted about w2-15. I post immediately to several social media pages . . .,” said Karen. “We’re certainly hoping for successful fledging of w2-15 and many others.”

First Chick for a Wild-hatched Whooper Mom

Crane w3-10 is the embodiment of all the hopes for this Eastern Migratory Population – she is a crane who was hatched in the wild by a successful breeding pair, and is now, herself, nesting and reproducing. Her parent cranes, 4-19 and 2-12, successfully hatched and raised three female chicks to fledging and beyond, though W3-10 is the only one of the three to be living now. She has been paired with male 29-08 at least since spring of 2013. They migrate each year between Necedah and southern Indiana.

This is the first report of nesting and chicks for both w3-10, and her mate. Their twins were hatched May 17, and as of May 28 they are still seen with one of them. That chick, w8-15, is a truly wild-hatched, second generation bird: more of that is exactly what is needed now for the EMP.

The Very Important Wild-hatched Whooping Crane of 2006

There are two wild-hatched whooping cranes surviving in the EMP today. In addition to w3-10, described above, there is crane w1-06, which has the very important distinction of being the first whooping crane to hatch in the wild anywhere in the Untied States in more than a century! This now mature, 9 year-old crane is incubating a nest with her partner, 1-10.

She previously hatched a chick in 2011 that survived for only a few days, and another in 2014, which also did not survive to fledge. Of course, hopes are high that 2015 will be be a charmed year for her, and all the EMP. She and her partner had an early nest that failed and have re-nested – I believe rather late in May.

A Veteran Whooper Parent Pair 

Another renesting pair, 9-03 and 3-04, is one to watch because this successful parenting duo has hatched and raised two chicks (w1-10 and w3-13) that have survived to fledge and leave on migration with them. Since the fall of 2007 these two have been as dependable as the seasons, traveling back and forth to Florida, and more recently stopping short in Indiana, Illinois and Alabama. Each spring they are back at Necedah building a nest, and hatching chicks, and successfully raising the two birds mentioned above.

Their domestic routine seems so sedate, but for female 9-03 things weren’t always like this! Before pairing with 3-04 she had one of the most unsettled – probably the most unsettled – histories of getting lost and “wandering;” she has probably logged more flight miles than any crane in the history of this re-introduced flock of migrating whooping cranes!

In the spring of the years 2004 through 2007, she spent spring and summer, first in Ohio, and then Michigan, and next, wandering around Ontario, Vermont, and New York. In the fall of those years she was in North and South Carolina, and was captured once and relocated to Florida near other whooping cranes. In the summers of both 2006 and ’07 she was captured in New York and relocated to Wisconsin. The day after arriving in Wisconsin in 2007 she met, and quickly formed the pair bond with 3-04, and that certainly has changed her life.

The 2015 Chicks Vulnerable for Now

There are more stories like this among all the cranes out on the refuge. You can look them up yourself and read on and on at the Meet the Cranes pages kept in great detail at The Journey North website. There will surely be more stories to come – hopefully in the near future. But if you are a craniac, you are taking a deep breath right now and crossing all your fingers, because these are the long-expected wild chicks, and lots of them, that have hatched now in 2015, but as Heather Ray said above, their lives are filled with peril, especially in these vulnerable, earliest days.