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.)


Keeping Track of Whooping Cranes: February 2016, Part 1

It’s February of 2016 and there is plenty of news to report about whooping cranes, in general, and the cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP), in particular. This is Part 1.

Below you will find:

News of the cow pond whooper in Tallahassee, FL; George Archibald’s thoughts on USFWS decision to discontinue the ultralight program; Signs of spring, in spite of snow, at the International Crane Foundation; an update on the charges filed in the shooting death of two whooping cranes in Texas.

Big Bird’s Comings and Goings at The Cow Pond

As if there was ever any doubt, whooping crane 11-09 (#11, hatched in 2009), the now single male of last year’s Cow Pond Pair, has become a true celebrity. Or, as his champion, Karen Willes, describes him – “a true ambassador for crane conservation.”

Since his arrival at the cow pond near Tallahassee on Christmas Day, he has attracted a growing and intensely loyal fan base who gather there daily to observe and photograph him. Fans who can’t get there, eagerly check the Facebook postings of Karen Willes to assure themselves of his well-being.

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where is affectionately known as Big Bird. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Whooping crane 11-09 at the cow pond near Tallahassee, where he is affectionately known as Big Bird. (Photo by Karen Willes, used with permission)

Karen posts regular updates about this whooper (who, unlike the majority of cranes in the EMP, has earned a nick name: Big Bird). This is the fifth year that Karen has been watching 11-09, or Big Bird, (and, until this year, his mate 15-09). Karen’s initial interest in photographing the whooper pair quickly grew into a personal and demanding citizen science project; this year she has been faithfully documenting Big Bird’s interactions with other wildlife, his daily habits, and timing his intermittent departures and arrivals.

Migration North

Because his most recent departure was last Friday morning, February 19th, Karen is convinced that “Big Bird,” is now on his northward journey – migrating home to Wisconsin. (Indeed, some sandhill cranes are already being documented back in Wisconsin.)

The educational signs which Karen has had printed and installed near the cow pond at her own expense, have now been removed from the area, and stored for next year. The signs tell visitors about endangered whooping cranes, about what a rare opportunity it is to see such an endangered wild creature, and about the need to keep a respectful distance while viewing him through scopes and camera lenses.

“We have had over 50 days with Big Bird!” Karen posted this week. “Hope he returns in December with a new mate!”

Highlights of Big Bird’s Visit

Here is a brief summary of a few of the highlights Karen has posted about those 50 days:

– Though sweet, his arrival on Christmas Day came with just a hint of the bittersweet: he was alone. His former mate was in Alabama, with a different male whooping crane (11-02). His first days at the cow pond were punctuated by morning calls that some interpreted as his yearning and searching for the missing 15-09. Visitors to the cow pond, and commenters on Karen’s Facebook stream, expressed a frequent hope that he soon finds a new mate.

– Lonely, though he may have seemed at times, he was never really alone at the cow pond! There was the occasional stand-off with the resident cows – in which the cows backed off. At various times he shared the pond and surrounding fields with a rich assortment of other bird visitors, including ducks, Canadian geese, sandhill cranes, ibis, and wood storks.

A collage of Big Bird at the cow pond, with visitors, including the 9 sandhill cranes in top photo. (By Karen Willes, used with permission)

A collage of Big Bird at the cow pond, with visitors, including the 9 sandhill cranes in top photo, ibis, bottom left, and geese, right. (By Karen Willes, used with permission)

– On January 5th nine sandhill cranes joined Big Bird at the cow pond. As they flew overhead, the whooping crane called to the sandhills and the group reversed course, landed, and spent the night with him. Karen described Big Bird as “the pied piper,” leading the group up a hill in the morning and leading their take-off; he flew north with them, but then “circled back and went south, calling as he flew. Guess he was just helping them get on their way,” Karen posted.

– Some nights in February, Big Bird began to spend nights elsewhere, prompting great concern among the new craniacs closely following the news about him. Beginning February 7th he was gone about five nights; for two of those nights, he was discovered at another pond on private land inaccessible to visitors.

George Archibald’s Positive Message

Mixed in with her photos and news of Big Bird, Karen Willes Facebook stream tracks and reports other whooping crane news, as well. On January 22nd, Big Bird, the cow pond, and the human craniacs that gather there received a visit from a different kind of celebrity – a human one! George Archibald, the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, stopped by the cow pond on a chilly afternoon (for Florida) to meet and visit with them.

Dr. George Archibald with Karen Willes, January 2016. (Photo by Claire Timm)

Dr. George Archibald with Karen Willes, January 2016. (Photo by Claire Timm, used with permission)

Dr. Archibald shared with them the just-released decision by USFWS to discontinue the ultralight program. Karen wrote about his reaction to the end of a program she knows he supports. “As he explained the decision, he immediately looked for a positive outcome – that of ICF working with Operation Migration to put more cranes in the company of other cranes so that more of them will be together.”

More cranes in closer proximity, might be one solution to the problem of helping the EMP become self-sustaining. Karen wrote of her own belief in this possibility: “Now let’s pull together to support the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration in all their continued reintroduction endeavors to produce more cranes so that the EMP can become self-sustaining . . .”

More News from the International Crane Foundation

Always at work on behalf of cranes all over the world, the International Crane Foundation provides special attention in Wisconsin to the two crane species that can be found here, and throughout North America. Their monitoring of the now-numerous sandhill species led to this news, reported by ICF on Feb. 21:

“Spring is in the air – we sighted our first returning Sandhill Crane this weekend!”

And for Valentine’s weekend, an ICF report featured a pair from their captive whooping crane population, dancing in the snow!

“Love is in the air; despite our single digit temperatures, breeding season is fast approaching at our headquarters. Old and new couples are beginning to dance and call. . .”

Shooter Will Be Charged Under the Endangered Species Act

Finally, here is some news about the charges filed for the killing of two whooping cranes from the non-migrating Louisiana population. Both cranes were shot and killed near Beaumont, TX on Dec. 10, 2015. Trey Joseph Frederick, 18, of Beaumont was charged with the killings early in January. He was first charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but the case was refiled, and ICF reports that Frederick is now charged under the Endangered Species Act, thus likely facing stiffer penalties.

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.    


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cow Pond (Photo by Karen Willes)

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

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

Quick Links to Whooping Crane News & Updates

[Edited: 12.6.15]

Beginning with an update:  here is a partial report on the whereabouts of the EMP (the Eastern Migratory Population) whooping cranes, published at Operation Migration’s Field Journal. It includes an especially good accounting of the Class of 2014 ultralight-led chicks. This is really welcome news to everyone involved with the EMP since the six birds involved did not have the opportunity to learn the full migration route when it was their turn, a year ago.

Although the Class of 2014 missed many migration miles, they did have an early and successful arrival in Florida. Photographer Karen Willes, watching the arrival from the town of St. Marks,  caught this beautiful moment.  (Photo used with permission)

Although the Class of 2014 missed many migration miles, they did have a successful, early arrival in Florida, in mid-December a year ago. Photographer Karen Willes, watching the arrival from the town of St. Marks, caught this beautiful moment. (Photo used with permission)

Due to severe weather – winds that kept them grounded for six weeks after migration began, followed up by the threat of blizzard conditions in the north – the birds were finally driven 500 miles to Tennessee. In the spring this year, five migrated north on their own (one migrated with older cranes). Once they reached southern Illinois, it became obvious they no longer knew which way to go, and a “rescue mission” was launched to bring them back – a long ride to Wisconsin in an air-conditioned van.

WCEP was full of assurances that these cranes would have no trouble migrating on their own this fall, but you can tell in the written reports that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief, now that southern locations have been confirmed for all. Here’s where they are, the Class of 2014: cranes 3 & 10-14 (and most likely 4-14 with them) are safely in Georgia; 8-14 was reported in Tennessee in late November, and 7 & 9-14 are very close to the winter pensite at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in northern Florida.

At the Journey North website I found an even newer update about 8-14; a PTT signal for this female crane has now been reported that places her in Highlands County, right in the middle of South Florida. “This is way south of St. Marks NWR,” the website reported, “but the good news is she definitely knows the way to Florida . . .”

A New Fall Migration, A New Ultralight Class of Young Whoopers

The Class of 2015 has reached their scheduled stop in Carroll County, TN; 574 miles are now completed of the 1100 mile migration from Wisconsin to northern Florida. Deemed excellent as a class for their eagerness to fly in training, they’ve been – at times – not quite so wonderfully cooperative, and not always so eager to follow the ultralight aircraft through headwinds that have a tendency to slow things down. In spite of such issues, the migration is proceeding well, and as the birds gain real experience on long distance flights perhaps they are regaining some of their early cooperative spirit.

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)

Here is Heather Ray’s account of an important flight this week, and an earlier Lead Pilot Report from Joe Duff. Follow Operation Migration at their Field Journal; register and watch the flights live on their crane cam.

Operation Migration Earns Support of The Southern Company

For eight years now, Operation Migration has earned the respect and financial support of The Southern Company, which in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, makes a contribution that helps support OM’s EarlyBird e-bulletin newsletter, the live crane cam, and other features of OM’s website. The company was quoted recently in MarketWatch, noting, “Southern Company remains committed to the important work Operation Migration is doing every day,”

The Southern Company is a large, Atlanta-based energy company serving the southeastern United States. Operation Migration’s work is one of 85 projects that the company sponsors through its Power of Flight program. This program is the largest public-private funding effort for bird conservation in the southern U.S.

Whooping Cranes are Documented for Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas II

This is a story mainly about the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, a comprehensive field survey that documents the distribution and abundance of birds that are breeding here in the state. And it’s a neat story – the process of conducting a field survey of birds over the course of four years, the participation by over 700 volunteer observers, or ‘atlasers’ as they’re officially known, and the 1.7 million birds that have been documented thus far. But for my purposes here, at The Badger & the Whooping Crane, the best part of the story is the fact that the Whooping Crane species has now been confirmed as breeding in Wisconsin and added to the atlas.

Two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

Two eggs on the whooper nest in this photo from the archives of International Crane Foundation.

The fact that whooping cranes have now been recognized as breeding here in Wisconsin, is one more little sign that this iconic endangered species is ever-so-slowly re-establishing its rightful presence in North America, including right here in our state.

A total of eight new species have been confirmed for the new atlas. The others are: the Bufflehead, Eurasian Collard-Dove, White-eyed Vireo, Great Tit, Kirtland’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler,  and the European Goldfinch.

The survey to compile Wisconsin’s second Breeding Bird Atlas began this year, 2015, and will continue through 2019. The first Breeding Bird Atlas survey was conducted from 1995 to 2000. Here is a little more about the survey, and the birders and organizations who are leading it.

George Archibald Honored by the Chicago Zoological Society

Last, but never least, here is news of another conservation honor for George Archibald , co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. Anything with George Archibald’s name is sure to be both conservation news and crane news, too.

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

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

He is, to quote a Baraboo News Republic writer about George, “known globally as the world’s leading scientific authority on cranes.” And in preserving crane species and their wetland habitats world-wide, he has also done so much for the cause of conservation for all species, including the human ones. In recognition of his many achievements he has been awarded his native Canada’s highest honor, The Order of Canada. A few of his other awards include: the Lilly Medal presented by the Indianapolis Zoo, the Gold Medal from the World Wildlife Fund, and the inaugural Dan W. Lufkin Prize for Environmental Leadership from the National Audubon Society.

And just this past September George Archibald was presented with the George B. Rabb Conservation Medal by the Chicago Zoological Society. Stuart D. Strahl, President and CEO of the Society, said of George and two other prize recipients: “This yea’r winners deserve all the credit we can give them. They continue to make important inroads . . . They truly embody our mission of making connections among people and wildlife.”

If you’d like to learn more about George Archibald, the man, and his love for Wisconsin, his adopted home, here is a very good place to start: the beginning of a 3-part series in the Baraboo News Republic.

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

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

There was a lot of talk about predators . . .

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

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

“I know many share your concerns.”

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

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

“What kind of predation studies are being suggested?”

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

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

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

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

“Do You Have Any Updates on Whoopsie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Can Captive Whooping Cranes Raise A Chick for the Wild?

In two previous posts I’ve written about the methods that young captive-bred, costume-reared whooping cranes are released into the wild. The best known, the Ultralight Method by which young whoopers are taught a migration route by following ultralight aircraft has been used to build the Eastern Migratory Population (the EMP) of whooping cranes in Wisconsin, since 2000. There are 6 ultralight-trained whoopers this year that have already begun – their schedule dictated by the winds and weather – to follow the ultralights south.

Not so well-known, but very well-tested, the Direct Autumn Release method has been used since 2005, and has also added a significant number of cranes into the EMP. With this method young whoopers, after costume-rearing as tiny chicks at the International Crane Foundation, are released into the wild as young colts near adult cranes; it is hoped they will follow the adults on migration. There are eight DAR birds this year, currently being monitored at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.

For the past three years a completely new experiment, known as the Parent-Reared Method for releasing chicks from the captive populations into Wisconsin, has been tried.

What's this? At Necedah NWR: a temporary pen for the Parent-Reared Whooping Crane program. (USFWS photo, used with permission)

What’s this? At Necedah NWR: a temporary pen for the Parent-Reared Whooping Crane program. (USFWS photo, used with permission)

This Parent-Reared program originates from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center,  which is home to the original captive flock of whooping cranes. (Patuxent, in Maryland, is also where the ultralight chicks are hatched each year, and receive intensive training from the costume-rearing staff until they are old enough for their flight training with the ultralights in Wisconsin).

The Parent-Reared program was authorized for only three years, and involves only a handful of birds. Yet, in the future, according to Anne Lacey at the International Crane Foundation, it just might help the EMP reach the elusive goal of reproductive success.

But that’s getting ahead of the story for now. Here’s how the Parent-Reared release program was set up, and how it is working. In marked departure from both the Ultralight and the DAR programs, there are no costumed humans nurturing these young cranes. They did not hatch from eggs in man-made incubators, but instead from an egg that was incubated by their actual whooping crane parents.

After hatching, these chicks are reared by their whooper parents until they can fly. Once the chicks have fledged, the adult whooping cranes’ jobs are done, and the chicks are separated from them in preparation for their transfer to Wisconsin. Before the actual move, however, the 3 or 4 chicks – or colts (they are nearly adult-size now) – raised for this program are kept together at Patuxent, and given a bit of time to bond with each other.

They are then crated and flown here (to Wisconsin), Once here, and uncrated, they are kept together overnight at the International Crane Foundation. Meanwhile at Necedah NWR, a temporary pen has been set up for each crane near territory that is inhabited by an established pair of adult whoopers, in hopes that the adults will adopt the youngster and take it with them on migration.

At Necedah NWR: a parent-reared whooping crane will attract the notice of an adult pair of whoopers. (USFWS photo; used by permission)

At Necedah NWR: a parent-reared whooping crane, on the inside, will attract the notice of an adult whooper, on the outside.  (USFWS photo; used by permission)

Ann Lacey told me that sometimes this works like a charm. The adult pair take note right away that there is a new young colt on their territory, and seem to take a keen interest in it. When that happens they do quickly adopt it once it has been released from the pen (after just a few days). Other times the adult pair may simply tolerate the young bird, and not show a lot of interest, but will still allow it to hang around them.

Three new parent-reared birds have been released at Necedah this year. There were a total of just eight birds released through the parent-reared method in 2013 and 2014. Three of them died within a month of being released at Necedah, and five have survived to migrate and return to Wisconsin (and that’s twice, for the two surviving parent-reared birds from 2013).

A clear majority of these parent-reared birds are surviving, so there’s an affirmative answer to the question in the headline of this post “Can captive parent birds raise a bird for the wild?” It’s apparent they can. But here’s another question: how can these birds be the solution to the Wisconsin cranes’ reproductive success? Is the thought that they would be better parents?

And that brings up a number of other questions, including some about the Wisconsin cranes’ most recent breeding season. Sounds like questions for another post; I’ll just leave it there for now.

The Accidental Craniac

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

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

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

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

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

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