What to Expect from the 2014 Whooping Crane Nesting Season

Will whooping crane chicks hatch and survive to fledge in Wisconsin this year? That’s always the question at nesting season, but the need to get a ‘Yes!’ for an answer is growing more urgent.

Add to that basic question some other urgent ones as well. Will the cranes again abandon many nests when they are driven from them by clouds of tiny, biting black flies? Will they re-nest after black fly season? It’s been a cold, frozen spring in Wisconsin – will there even be a black fly season that coincides with crane-nesting season this year? And finally, when a chick does hatch will its’ crane parents be able to protect it until it can fly away from danger on its own?

As reported last week in The Badger and the Whooping Crane, although there have been many nests built by the whooping cranes of the Eastern Migratory Population since 2005 (over 130), far too few chicks have hatched and survived. Only 29 chicks have hatched, and a mere half-dozen of those survived to fledge – 1 chick in 2006, 2 in 2010, 2 more in 2012, and 1 in 2013.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010 - one of the few breeding seasons to yield "survivors."

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010 – one of the few breeding seasons to yield “survivors.”

An experiment to suppress the biting black flies that seem to be driving the cranes off their nests at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge was conducted during the cranes’ breeding seasons of 2011 and 2012. It did result in improved incubation success, but Peter Fasbender, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership co-chair told me last week in an email that incubation improvement, by itself, wasn’t enough.

WCEP Makes the Case for More Study and More Second Nests

Nine chicks were hatched in 2012 – a record for the EMP, but only two survived to fledge, and join their parents on migration. The low survival rate–particularly of chicks from first nests–is also what concerns WCEP, Fasbender said. “Black fly emergence during the incubation phase contributes to failure in this area,” (nesting) “but our study has shown this is only part of the problem.”

Fasbender added that WCEP observations show that chicks have a much better chance of surviving to fledge if they are hatched from re-nests–the second nests that whooping crane pairs sometimes build if their first nesting attempt has failed. Thus, this year WCEP, is tackling the problems of ‘nest abandonment’ and ‘low chick survival’ with new tools, one of them being an emphasis on getting at least some of the cranes to re-nest. WCEP plans to remove eggs from half the nests early in the spring. (The undisturbed nests will act as a control group, Fasbender said.) The goal of doing this is to encourage whooping crane pairs to re-nest later in the season, when the black fly emergence has passed and there is a higher chance of chick survival, as well.

The second new tool that WCEP has announced this year is a $210,000 grant that has been awarded to Necedah NWR from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cooperative Recovery Initiative, to “expand the limited understanding of multiple factors that influence nesting whooping cranes.” Necedah was one of only four refuges selected to receive such a grant this year. It will support 3 years of efforts to study and manage the cranes’ nesting season.

More History of the Black Fly Problem

Curious for more information about the black fly problems and the experiment to suppress them (and what, if anything, that might mean for the future) I visited WCEP’s webpages about its nest productivity studies, as well as “The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership Five Year Strategic Plan 2011 – 2015,” and its “March 2014 Status Report & Updates.”

Two specific black fly species that target birds to feed on have been identified at Necedah NWR. I learned they emerge with the first significant warm weather every year, always seeming to coincide with the whooping cranes’ nesting season–identified at WCEP’s “History of Nesting Efforts” as late April to mid-June. By 2008 there was enough anecdotal observations of large numbers of flies near nesting cranes, and photos of flies all over eggs in abandoned nests and that, combined with “lower than expected reproductive success,” prompted WCEP to launch “detailed nesting studies in 2009 and 2010,” and also, to search for an alternate future breeding territory to replace Necedah.

Whooping crane nesting success went up in 2012, after WCEP implemented the experimental black fly suppression program in both 2011 and 2012. This involved identifying the breeding sites of the flies and treating them with Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis), described as a biological control agent. The result was that the black fly population decreased, and in 2012, 9 whooping crane chicks were hatched, though as previously mentioned, only 2 chicks survived to fledge. As committed as WCEP is to addressing the low chick survival through more study and re-nesting, a Bti Summary Statement for 2014″ reports that talks will continue within WCEP about the use of Bti as a management tool (rather than just as an experiment) at some point in the future.

A New Breeding Territory for Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin

As mentioned above, WCEP began a search for a second location for the cranes’ nesting territory once the black fly problem was positively identified with Necedah. By 2011 this alternative, free of any large-scale black fly problem, had been identified on the eastern side of the state and chicks were being trained to fly with the ultralights at White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, and DAR chicks were being released at Horicon NWR. This would insure that the youngest cranes would migrate back to these areas and eventually, when mature, form pairs and build nests there.

An adult whooping crane pair in the Eastern Migratory Population. WCEP is hoping there will soon be many of these in the new breeding territory in Wisconsin. (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP)

An adult whooping crane pair that live within the captive population at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP)

Today there are 15 adult whooping cranes–7 that are DAR (direct autumn release) cranes and 8 ultralight-trained birds–that were the first to start their migrations from these eastern Wisconsin locations in 2011. They are now 3 years old, and generally thought too young to form pair bonds and produce fertile eggs. But it is hoped it won’t be long now before this group does form pairs and begins to produce chicks.

In fact, it was reported at the Operation Migration Field Journal, that two of the 2011 bird have indeed paired, and built a nest in the White River Marsh SWA. It was discovered by a Wisconsin DNR pilot on April 24th, and reported by Journey North as still active April 30th. A good sign? You bet!

Please stay tuned as we learn whatever answers the 2014 nesting season may yield.

Whooping Cranes Sitting on Nests!

Coming soon to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership: newly-hatched crane chicks!

The eggs are being incubated (gathered from whooping cranes in the captive populations at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation); add to that the good news that paired whooping cranes in the wild are sitting on nests in both Louisiana and Wisconsin. Those who work professionally on behalf of the whooping crane species, and those who just love them from afar – all are collectively holding their breath, waiting to see what the immediate future for whooping cranes is going to look like. Will the coming year be filled with more hopes than worries? Or the other way ’round?

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

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

For starters, the number of chicks hatched in captivity, then costume-reared, will once again be split among 3 different release programs: a group that will be trained to fly with the ultralights of Operation Migration, another group for Direct Autumn Release, and a third group that will be released with the new non-migrating flock in Louisiana. While there is always the hope for a bountiful crop of chicks to be shared by all three programs, there is also the real possibility that each program will have to settle for less than the hoped-for number of chicks.

The true hope for WCEP is represented by those cranes building nests in the wild – they’re the key to WCEP’s main goal of establishing a new, self-sustaining flock of wild whooping cranes. They are also the cause of so much of the breath-holding and anxiety regarding the breeding season for the Eastern Migratory Population of whoopers.

Over the years, the EMP whooping cranes have engaged in an impressive amount of nest-building in Wisconsin, but with little to show for it. According to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, only 29 chicks have been hatched from the more than 100 nests built since 2005, and few of those hatched chicks have survived. The WCEP partners are engaged in various studies, including a recent effort at Bti suppression of black flies (in 2011 and 2012) which have been seen harassing the nesting cranes, and a just-launched 3-year intensive study of the whooping cranes’ nesting habits at Necedah NWR.

Look closely for the two eggs on the whooper nest! (Photo courtesy, international Crane Foundation)

Hopefully, successful breeding seasons will soon result, as the WCEP partners discover more answers. I asked WCEP co-chair, Peter Fasbender, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officer based in northeastern Wisconsin, about this, and he told me, via email:

“Wisconsin whooping cranes are doing some things well. Their survival rate is good. Their migration patterns are well-established in both spring and fall. They appear to arrive back in breeding territory in good physical condition as indicated by what appears to be normal courtship, breeding, and nesting habits.”

Then he added: “Here is where whooping cranes begin to have issues. While many are successful in laying eggs and initiating incubation, very few make it to egg-hatching phase. Black fly emergence during the incubation phase contributes to failure in this area, but our study has shown this is only part of the problem.”

Peter Fasbender had more to say about nest failure, and what WCEP is doing this year, instead of more black fly suppression. The Badger and the Whooping Crane will cover this and include more information about the pesky black flies, in a second post about the 2014 nesting season next week.

I’d be remiss, though, not to mention right now two especially newsworthy nests that are being watched for chick hatchings: in Louisiana, the newly reintroduced non-migratory flock has a pair of 3-year-olds that are sitting on a nest with two eggs. The prospective crane parents are young to successfully raise a chick, and it’s possible that the eggs are not fertile. But the nest was first observed in late March, so if a chick is to hatch from it, there will be headlines about this very soon.

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 couresty Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership)

And in Wisconsin, another pair of 3-year-old cranes appears to have a nest in the White River Marsh release area. Operation Migration announced it earlier this week on their Facebook page. The project to train young chicks to fly with the ultralights of Operation Migration was moved from Necedah NWR to this release area in 2011, and these cranes are from the first class trained in this new location. The nest at White River Marsh is a “first,” and a very exciting development for the 2014 breeding season!




Will the Whooping Crane Partners Opt for Black Fly Suppression?

By 2005, four individual birds in Wisconsin’s growing flock of whooping cranes had formed pairs and made a first attempt at nesting. No one was surprised when the two nests that resulted were unsuccessful – these were still young and inexperienced birds. When one of the pairs succeeded in 2006 in welcoming the first wild whooping crane hatched in Wisconsin in more than a century, the wildlife community was jubilant. And optimistic that more such successes would naturally be following in succeeding years.

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these - in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

Parent and chick: Wisconsin is yearning for more of these – in the wild. (Photo courtesy of ICF)

But three very long years would pass before even a single wild chick would once again hatch in Wisconsin, and four years before another one hatched and survived. Instead of chicks hatching, what was happening during this time were mounting numbers of “nest abandonment.” Over time it was observed that many pairs, after forming and building a nest together, were suddenly leaving that nest and not returning.

WCEP Studies Nest Abandonments

By 2009 this problem was being actively studied and various hypotheses were put forward by officials of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – the actual folks responsible for bringing the whooping crane back to eastern North America, and Wisconsin, in particular. These included theories that maybe the cranes were too inexperienced in the wild, or were undernourished, or too stressed by predators, or harassed by biting black flies, or something else.

I don’t think it took long for the biologists involved in closely monitoring the nesting whooping cranes to notice large numbers of black flies on some of the incubating cranes. But it has taken a while for this, and the various other hypotheses to be tested – science, after all, takes its time, and the scientists, understandably, want to get it right.

Are More Bti Treatments the Answer?

However, the citizen scientists and fans of progress for the whooping cranes in Wisconsin – myself among them – who were tuned into the Wisconsin DNR’s Ask The Experts online chat last week, seemed to be expressing a lot of eagerness for a continuation of Bti treatments to reduce the Black fly population. Bti is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium – considered a good alternative to chemicals used to suppress insects. It was applied in certain areas of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in 2011 and 2012, to see if fewer black flies would result in fewer nest abandonments by whooping cranes.

It seems like it did, in fact, help. Here is a page all about it at the WCEP website. I once saw a picture of a nesting whooping crane covered with nasty looking black flies, and hoped to find and link to it for this post; while my quest for it was unsuccessful, I urge you to look closely at the eggs in the photo on the WCEP page – they are covered with the flies, and seem to tell the story!

At the Ask the Experts event, Davin Lopez, the DNR whooping crane coordinator could only say that the matter is still being studied. But he seemed to promise that a decision will be forthcoming in winter, 2014. The decision will be made by the WCEP partners, but for now Davin offered the opportunity to contact him directly, Davin.Lopez@wisconsin.gov , for those with more question or comments.

Ask the Experts – The Whooping Crane Edition

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held an online chat about whooping crane migration and other related issues last week. It took place at noon, October 31st.

It was one of the DNR’s series of Ask The Experts online events, where various DNR staff take part in discussions and answer questions about their topic of expertise. There have been sessions on walleye fishing, deer hunting, well water testing, beach monitoring, and so many other topics.

For the Whooping Crane version of Ask The Experts, Davin Lopez – the DNR’s whooping crane coordinator, was joined by 2 other partners in the whooping crane reintroduction efforts in Wisconsin. Joan Garland, outreach coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, and Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, joined Davin in typing back answers to the questions almost as fast as we online chatterers submitted them.

Midway through the chat we learned that there were approximately 100 who were participating! As a participant you have no idea that you are part of such a large virtual audience.

Among the many dozens of questions that were asked, the topic that attracted the most attention – at least 12 questions and comments – was concerned with treatments to reduce the Black fly population (which seems to contribute to the cranes abandoning nests at breeding time) at Necedah NWR. I’ll add a separate post about that, but first, here is a list of some of the topics touched on:

– Although the ultralight-led migration began for this year’s crop of new cranes on October 2nd, there have been no reports of “on migration” sightings of any of the 100-plus adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin. Heather Ray said that generally they don’t begin migration before November.

– She also said that the ultralight migration flights begin with short flights of 5 to 20 miles in distance and gradually expand to 50 and 60 mile flights, as the birds gain experience and stamina.

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young.

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young.

– The goal of the whooping crane re-introduction campaign in Wisconsin (technically the campaign is for the entire Eastern half of North America, but Wisconsin is key, as the northern terminus of the flyway that is being established) is 100 individual birds (that goal is within reach) and 25 successful breeding pairs (not even close); actually, Davin Lopez called this “a very rough goal . . . what we need is a self sustaining, growing population.”

– Ray reported that there were 20 breeding pair in Wisconsin in 2013. Unfortunately only 3 chicks hatched from these nests, and only one has survived to fledge. (The survivor is designated #W3-13 – the 3rd chick hatched in the wild in 2013 – and will be migrating south with its parents: #9 from 2003, and #3 from 2004).

– Except for 3 surviving wild chicks (the 2013 survivor, and #w1-06, and #w3-10) all of Wisconsin’s wild whooping cranes were hatched from eggs produced each year by the captive populations at ICF and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Ray said that there are generally 30 and 40 eggs available each year from these sources, and they are split 50/50 between Wisconsin and the new <strong>Louisiana Non-migrating flock; efforts to establish this were launched in 2011.

– One participant commented about a Sandhill Crane hunt, which has been rumored for Wisconsin. He suggested that it would be hard for hunters to distinguish between young whooping crane colts and Sandhills. Joan Garland referred him to a fact sheet at the International Crane Foundation website that addresses the hunting proposal.

– As the chat closed, another guest added this personal note: “Thanks to a school presentation by Joan, my son is hooked on the whooping crane and he wants to be a biologist when he grows up!”

How lucky, that courtesy of the International Crane foundation, I just happen to have a picture of Joan making such a presentation! And here it is:

International Crane Foundation's Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

International Crane Foundation’s Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

[Photo credits: Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, and the International Crane Foundation.]