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.
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?
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.
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.