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.