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.



Birder Meets Whooping Cranes

“Striking, serene, graceful. Hungry. Nonchalant.” Those are the words that confirmed birder, Dale Bonk, used to describe whooping cranes.

I had asked Dale, a member of the Wisconsin Birding Facebook group, to suggest three words he’d use to describe the wild whooping cranes he’d just seen, and he gave me five. One could probably think of plenty more, he added.

Dale had spent an early November day observing and photographing a pair of whooping cranes in Dane County, and he was happy to share his strong impressions from the sighting. But maybe the best thing that sums up his experience are the first words that went through his mind that day. He shared, via email: “Wow! Holy Jebus! They’re there; they’re actually there! …And they’re not flying away. Let’s hope the camera works.”

Whooping Crane photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November.

Whooping Crane pair photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November.

His camera worked just fine. He later admitted on Facebook that he had been “a little shutter happy” and had taken “something like 400 shots.”

About a week before Dale’s encounter, a number of other members of the Wisconsin Birding group had seen the pair and there was quite a bit of chatter about them on the Facebook page, including where to find them. As is the practice among birders, those reporting the sightings were as precise as possible about locations – it’s a courtesy to other birders who hope to see for themselves. It didn’t take long, however, before someone questioned if this was the right thing to do for birds that are members of an endangered species.

In fact, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership issues precise guidelines about observing cranes in the wild, and shortly after the Facebook discussion about this, the Wisconsin Birder page moderators published a request they had received from WCEP to restrict the location reporting to county-level-only. They’ve also included a link to use to report all sightings to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

For Dale what makes whooping cranes so special is that “they were so close to extinction , and yet, somehow, humans managed to ‘save’ them. For nature lovers, having a ‘success’ story is a wonderful feeling.” Dale is a self-described “outdoorsy person” and always has been, “but I’ve only gotten into birding in the past year, and intensely with the camera and scope in the past 6 months.”


He selected 21 of the best among the many pictures he made of the whooping crane pair and published a Facebook album, to which he added: “This sighting makes me unbelievably happy. What gorgeous birds!”

A final note: The Badger and the Whooping Crane is grateful to Dale Bonk for the use of his images. Both photos clearly show the birds’ leg bands and identify the birds as members of the WCEP population. These bands lead to a wealth of information on each individual bird compiled by WCEP. Doesn’t that sound like good material for another post, another time?

Whooping Crane Encounters

Have you ever seen a whooping crane? Many of the people I know would be the first to admit they know little about whooping cranes, and almost nothing about the fact that there are whooping cranes right here in Wisconsin. But as our re-introduced flock grows (the current count of our Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes has just been established at 108 birds) the very slim chance that you would see one increases a a little.

So, would you know what to do? There are two very important things you should know, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

First, keep your distance – whooping cranes are wild creatures, and big; but the real concern about human and whooping crane interactions is that the crane’s natural fear of humans will diminish with each exposure. Their fear is an important survival mechanism and must be preserved.

The second thing to do, if you are ever lucky enough to sight a whooping crane is to report it. Here is a link to an online reporting form at the US Fish & Wildlife Servicer. It’s a page long, but filling it out looks like a fairly short and sweet process. Basically USFWS wants as much information as you can supply, but if all you have is the date, and the county where you sighted the crane, that will do.

Some interesting November whooping crane encounters here in Wisconsin have been reported in blogs and facebook groups. See the re-blog post that follows. It is from Dancing Bird Studio, where blog author, Darcy, writes about a new family – 2 adults and a juvenile – of whoopers, and how it came to be; with dramatic photos, too.

Bird Watching Daily Reports on Wisconsin and our Cranes

The editors at Bird Watching Daily have covered the story of Wisconsin’s whooping cranes twice this fall. This recent post at birdwatchingdaily.com discusses the DAR (Direct Autumn Release) chicks at Horicon Marsh and environmental photojournalist Tom Lynn.

The chicks were released near adult cranes at Horicon on October 24, and will hopefully soon be following the adults to Florida. Lynn, from Milwaukee, has been granted what Bird Watching Daily calls “unprecedented access to the DAR birds,” and hopes to follow them and document their journey south.

Earlier this fall, Bird Watching Daily’s managing editor, Matt Mendenhall, attended the annual Whooping Crane Festival based in Berlin, WI, with side trips to Necedah, Baraboo, and Green Lake. Over that weekend, he reports, he saw a total of 17 whooping cranes – a number that would have been unheard of a short time ago. He called the weekend a true celebration of the efforts to re-introduce the cranes here, and his report, “A Weekend for watching and celebrating Whooping Cranes” is well worth a look.

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.)

What? Who? Why?

Big, beautiful, iconic, and highly endangered, the whooping crane – and the unfolding story of its survival against the odds – offers us, I do believe, one of the most memorable wildlife epics of our time. The story pairs the power of nature to endure with the creative power of humans to improve on our many intersections with the natural world.

I started The Badger and the Whooping Crane to join – and hopefully amplify in any small way I can – the chorus of voices telling this story, and in particular, to highlight Wisconsin’s considerable role, since 2001, in this drama.

In between crane news I like to tap the rich vein of news about natural resources in Wisconsin, and share as much as I can. There’s always so much to talk about. 

If you’d like more info about the blog, there is more, on the “About” page.