The Class of 2014’s Happy Ending to Spring Migration

All five of the young whooping cranes of the Class of 2014 have been successfully returned to Wisconsin after weeks of wandering in southern Illinois and into Kentucky. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) had already determined months ago that because of the unusual circumstances of the fall 2014 migration there might be a need to assist the young cranes with their return trip, and WCEP partner, Operation Migration, had volunteered to do it. That the five made it on their own, in the company of one adult whooper, as far north as Illinois by early April was a decided plus. But their Illinois arrival was followed by storms, and their adult companion left for Wisconsin without them. Then came too much of what ultralight pilot Joe Duff called “their peregrinations back and forth across the state . . .” It was obvious that they were lost.

In a capture-and-rescue mission by Operation Migration – two missions, actually, and both read like scripts for an award-winning action-drama film – the birds were located, tracked, coaxed, and contained, then driven back to Wisconsin in the dead of night. When they were released, free and wild, near last summer’s flight training site at White River Marsh, they emerged from their travel crates at dawn, “fresh as daisies and began dancing around together in joyful exuberance.” Those are the words of Brooke Pennypacker, their OM ultralight pilot, and, for one chilly night, their long-distance driver. “They looked,” he added, “as though they had just traveled through some magic portal and found themselves in the past and the future, both at the same time.”

I’ve written about these Class of 2014 cranes and their plight before, two posts down this page. The links included here in this post will connect you to the eye-witness accounts at The Field Journal of Operation Migration. They describe in exquisite detail the long hikes through difficult terrain, tall grasses, and forests nearly impassable with brambles; the scaling muddy embankments, the wading through streams and ponds, and swimming to an island to rescue a crane trapped in vegetation so thick she could not open her wings to fly.

That was one of several small but critical rescues within the bigger picture of getting the lost cranes back to Wisconsin. On another island the OM crew arrived to find crane #4-14 being stalked by coyotes. In addition to the long hikes, small boats and airplanes have a place in the story, too. I encourage you to follow the links and read more about this – it’s action-and-drama-with-wildlife writing you won’t be soon forget.

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!




Home Again! The Rookie Whooping Cranes That Came Back to Wisconsin

Six special whooping cranes were observed last Saturday, back home in Wisconsin. They are part of the “Class of 2013” – the 8 juvenile cranes  taught the migration route last fall by Operation Migration’s ultralight pilots. This is a victory, and  a sweet one. But it comes with a side of bittersweet, too.

Every whooping crane that returns here in the spring migration is a cause for celebration, but none more so than the youngest, still-juvenile, cranes; the ones that migrated south for the first time in the fall; the ones that had to learn the migration route from a surrogate parent of one kind or another. For eight of them that surrogate was the pilots and ultralight aircraft of Operation Migration. These eight, flew north as a group, leaving their wintering site in Florida Monday morning, March 31st.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

A 2009 photo of cranes following an ultralight; by Tim Ross; at Wikimedia Commons.

Operation Migration, with the help of signals from radio transmitters banded to the cranes, reported on their whereabouts several times along the way; always with the speculation, but never with certainty that the group of eight was traveling together. This group of young whooping cranes, unlike some, “seemed to be a rather tight knit group, ” wrote OM’s Heather Ray at the group’s Field Journal. So when six of the eight arrived back in Wisconsin, where were the other two?

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

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

The answer of course, is the bitterwsweet part of this story. Before the six returnees were confirmed in print, OM had to break the sad news earlier this week that once they (OM) continued to receive radio signals for crane #1-13, still coming from Kentucky, they feared something bad had happened to her.

The “something bad” was most likely a collision with power lines, a theory that developed from checking Google Earth at the co-ordinates for the signal; clearly visible was “a transmission tower supporting several power lines.” The crane’s body was retrieved by volunteers for OM on Sunday. One more Class of 2013 ultralight crane–a male, #3-13–remains unaccounted for, but the OM crew is confident, for now, that he will be located alive and healthy somewhere soon.

In addition to the eight young ultralight-trained cranes in the Class of 2013, there are 4 other juveniles to watch for. These complete the 2013 cohort, and include two that were among the “costumed-reared” chicks, hatched and raised at the International Crane Foundation for Direct Autumn Release.

These cranes were released into the wild at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge to learn the migration route from experienced cranes. There were 9 of them released in October , but only 2 have survived into 2014. The smallest crane of this group, a female called Latka, has been positively identified in Wisconsin, in a photo posted to ICF’s Facebook page on March 19th. The most recent information I could find for Mork, the second surving DAR crane, is from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s February 28th Update.  Mork wintered in Tennessee, began migration in mid-February, and was reported in Jackson County, Indiana on February 19th.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane.  By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon colors left.

This photo from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership clearly shows the difference between a juvenile and adult whooping crane. By the time they complete their first migration back to Wisconsin most young cranes have very few cinnamon-colored feathers remaining.

The final two juvenile cranes in the 2013 cohort were hatched and reared by their captive whooping crane parents at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. In late September they were brought to Wisconsin, and released at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in the vicinity of adult whooping cranes, in hopes they would bond and travel south with established whoooping crane pairs.

Indeed, they did so. Here’s where they were most recently observed:  crane #22-13 was last reported, in WCEP’s update, in Washington County, Indiana, in late February. And a March 4th photo on ICF’s Facebook page shows the other parent-reared juvenile (#24-13) with its foster crane parents in Hopkins County, Kentucky where the threesome spent the winter.

In all there were 21 whooping crane chicks hatched in 2013 and reared in one of the surrogate parent programs described here. The goal, of course, is that they all become adult whooping cranes in the wild, as part of the Eastern Migratory Population. But only 11 remain.

It goes without saying that the wilderness life these creatures are intended for is hard and fraught with  uncertainty. Death from predators, disease, and accidents is a constant companion of this program that seeks to restore a wild population of whooping cranes that nests in Wisconsin and migrates to the southern U.S. It makes those that do survive all the more treasured, and explains why each scrap of good news about this endangered species is joyously celebrated.



It’s a Federal Crime to Kill a Whooping Crane

In the time I’ve been following what I sometimes call “the whooping crane drama,” 8 of these beautiful birds that belonged to our Eastern Migratory Population have died by gunfire. Though most of these deaths are unsolved cases, both the members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and those in the law enforcement community who have investigated the deaths, believe these are not accidental shootings, but wanton, senseless killings. Now two more such killings have been reported – so 10 whooping cranes in the EMP, which nests here in Wisconsin, have been destroyed this way.

The bad news arrived mid-January in the form of a press release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it spread fast, re-broadcast by the International Crane Foundation, WCEP, Operation Migration, and other whooping crane partners. An injured crane had been discovered, and ultimately euthanized in late November, in Hopkins County, KY, and the body of its mate was recovered in Muhlenberg County, KY, on December 13, 2013. The Louisville Courier Journal reported that wildlife authorities had delayed announcing these killings “while they gathered evidence” and put together a reward package in order to ask for the public’s help in finding the perpetrators.

A Broadly-supported Effort to Encourage Public Input on Crane Killings

Is there anything that is more frustrating and unnerving to those who devote a good part of their lives to  preserving the endangered whooping crane? I don’t think so. The reward money, for anyone who gives information that directly leads to arrest and conviction of those responsible,  has steadily grown from  $7,200 to over $15,000. All kinds of groups are contributing to it, and in addition to those directly involved, these include the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Friends of Wheeler NWR, and more.

The killings are violations of both the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  The International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration are both urging their friends and followers to share widely the following “Help Us Save the Whooping Crane” public service announcement:

Eight More Whooping Crane Shootings

Here’s a brief rundown of what is known about the deaths-by-gunfire suffered by eight other birds in the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes:

At the end of 2010 – December 30th, in Georgia – the bodies of 3 young “Direct Autumn Release” cranes were found in Calhoun County. The cranes were on their first migration from Wisconsin, learning the way from older birds.

Early in 2011, two whooping cranes believed to have been shot were found at Weiss Lake in Alabama. The body of one was discovered on January 28th, and the second crane’s body was recovered in mid-February less than a quarter-mile away from where the first was found.

In the spring of 2011 a juvenile shooter and the adult that accompanied him were charged and sentenced in Indiana for the 2009 killing of an EMP crane. USFWS officials welcomed the closure to this case, but they got little else. The unusually light sentence imposed on the shooter in the Vermillion County, Indiana court left anger and disbelief among so many in the wildlife conservation community.

The year ended with the bad news of a second whooping crane shot in Indiana; its remains were discovered near Crothersville, Dec. 30th, 2011.  And while the new year was still fresh – on January 21, 2012 – someone in the Indiana DNR received a tip from a citizen that led to the discovery of a third whooping crane shot in Indiana.

Some justice, at least, seemed to prevail when two shooters were held responsible for the third Indiana whooping crane killing. Jason McCarter and John Burke, each of Knox County, were sentenced to 3 years of probation, 120 hours of community service at a state wildlife area, and a donation of $5,000 to the International Crane Foundation.

There have been some illegal shootings of whooping cranes outside the Eastern Migratory Population as well, and a recent case in South Dakota earned a 26-year-old shooter a truly stiff sentence: the requirement that he make $85,000 in restitution payments and serve 2 years of probation with no hunting or trapping rights. This news cheered wildlife conservationists and raised hopes that the message will spread to other potential shooters:  it really IS a crime to take the life of these birds.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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, , 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.]

The Class of 2013 Takes Its Final Exam

That’s whooping cranes, we’re talking about here; the ones that make Wisconsin their home, and specifically, the 8 young crane colts that have been training to fly with ultralight aircraft since the day they were hatched.

As of October 2nd, this year’s class has been officially on migration – the real test of its long summer of training. This account at the Operation Migration website gives a good description of what it’s like to actually launch such an undertaking – convincing 8 juvenile whooping cranes to follow their airplane “surrogate parent” far from anyplace they’ve ever seen before. (And even though it was only 5 miles, a few of the cranes remained unconvinced.)

Since that precarious launch the group has successfully covered 120 miles, and currently remains camped out at the first stopover site in Illinois, waiting for the right flying weather.

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This necessary waiting makes the trip a long one, but we can follow it all through the field journal at the Operation Migration website. Days will become weeks, and then months, but sooner or later the young cranes and the ultralights will fly into St. Marks’ National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Tallahassee, in the panhandle of Florida, and the cranes that we think belong to us, will, for a time, be claimed by the Floridians.

This year, due to budget cutting affecting all government programs, one of the two wildlife refuges that have supported the whooping crane recovery program in Florida, has had to pass up the opportunity to host the cranes. This article in the Tampa Bay Times explains the difficult ramifications facing the manager of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which was scheduled to be the host site this year, and the disappointment felt by local fans of the formerly annual visits from ultralights leading the year’s newest whooping cranes.

(The image above, courtesy of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, shows an earlier class of cranes flying their first migration with an ultralight.)