An afternoon with a whooping crane family

By Val Mann – Guest Author

Very early Thursday morning Kim and I packed up Max (our car) and headed three hours north to the whooping cranes’ preferred staging grounds in farmers’ fields and sloughs. It was a warmish, beautiful, sunny day – perfect for a drive in the countryside.

Max doubles as a blind with the camera lenses through open windows. The car is a gold-brown colour and usually coated with a layer of grid road dust – perhaps blending with the golden harvested fields. Whatever the reason, wildlife tend to ignore the car.

Whooping crane

Whooping crane family foraging in the slough. Photo by Val Mann

Just over a grid road hill, a family of whooping cranes, parents and a colt, were foraging in a roadside slough. The family ignored us and continued to feed. At one point, judging from the behaviour, the parents wanted to roost and snooze in the warm prairie afternoon sunshine. Junior showed signs of being bored. After unsuccessfully trying to rouse the parents, the colt went foraging for snacks, wandering towards us. The parents kept a watchful eye on the youngster while they preened, but did not raise alarm. Eventually the colt returned to roost with the parents. Not that long after, a huge grain truck drove by and the cranes flew deep into the fields.

Wow, what an amazing experience to share time with them!

This was not a typical sighting. Normally the cranes are extremely human intolerant and keep at least 500 metres (about 1500 feet) from roads, humans, etc. The middle of a farmer’s field would be the norm.

Please note that we were actually a distance away – on a pullover off the far side of the road. The powerful super telephoto lens and post-production cropping make the birds appear considerably closer than they actually were.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is very thankful that Val Mann shared her adventure with us. We hope that you enjoyed it and the photos below of the family of wild whooping cranes that she sent along to go with her story. Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge.

Thank you, Val!

Whooping Crane

Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann

 

Whooping Crane

Whooping crane family preening together while roosting. Photo by Val Mann

 

Two whooping cranes: Junior and a parent, in flight. Photo by Val Mann

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Cows helping Whooping Cranes

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is continuing its project to encourage development and management of stopover habitats for migrating Whooping Cranes. We have visited military bases, Indian Reservations and some private lands within the six state migration corridor (TX, OK, KS, NE, SD and ND). Our mission is to provide advice to land managers about how to develop and/or manage existing ponds/wetlands to be useful as roosting/feeding sites for migrating Whooping Cranes. The cranes must stopover approximately 15 to 20 times during their 2,500 mile migration between Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting area and their wintering area at Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast.

Some management relationships discovered

During our field trips to the various sites we have learned about some management relationships that we had not been aware of. We learned that livestock, including cattle and bison can make some ponds/wetlands more suitable as stopover areas. Livestock normally walk around ponds until they reach a shallow area where they can safely enter the ponds and drink. As they are moving around they are also grazing and trampling vegetation on pond shores. Whooping Cranes use these same shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter the ponds to roost. We observed this relationship on numerous ponds/wetlands especially in North and South Dakota.

Whooping Cranes avoid certain sites

Whooping Cranes do not use ponds/wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore. They avoid sites anywhere they would have to move through dense vegetation where predators may be lurking such as shown in Figure 1.

Whooping Cranes

Figure 1. This pond’s shore area is covered with a dense growth of cattail vegetation. Whooping Cranes will not attempt to use ponds with these conditions. When selecting a pond where they can roost for the night, the cranes glide in (Fig. 2) and land on the shore. Then they walk into a shallow area of the pond and roost where they are safer from predators. Predators such as coyotes and bobcats can hide in dense vegetation and jump on Whoopers and kill them.

Whooping Cranes

Figure 2. Whooping cranes gliding onto shore of nearby pond. They will observe their surroundings to look for danger. Then they will walk into a shallow area of the pond to roost for the night. Because of their long legs and 5 foot height, they can defend themselves against predators while roosting in water. Whoopers landng by Diane Nunley

Fortunately, around some ponds, livestock have grazed and trampled the vegetation while getting a drink and grazing the more succulent vegetation (Figure 3).This results in more unobstructed shore areas that allow Whooping Cranes to use ponds as stopover sites.

Some concern has been expressed that livestock cause shoreline erosion and contamination of the stock dams/ponds that results in some murky, dirty water. While this may have some merit, FOTWW did not detect any serious problems. We carefully observed the water in the ponds visited and could clearly see the pond bottom in shallow areas. We also firmly believe that the advantages of the stock dams/ponds far outweigh any disadvantages. Use of the ponds/wetland water resources by numerous species and many thousands of individual wild animals has caused the military and Indian Reservation’s habitats to be much more productive.

Some ponds in excellent condition

Some of the stock dams/ponds on the areas visited are currently in excellent condition to serve as secure Whooping Crane stopover habitats. And some other ponds/wetlands could easily and inexpensively be developed into good habitats. However others are not useful for Whooping Cranes because cattails, bushes and trees are thick along the shore areas. On these latter ponds FOTWW recommends that they be managed for other wildlife species that prefer dense vegetative cover.

Importantly, FOTWW contends that it is not necessary or desirable to modify or manage all ponds for Whooping Cranes but rather focus on a subset with the best ponds and surrounding landscape characteristics. Open landscapes including pasture and crop land allows Whooping Cranes to easily locate the ponds and provides ready observation of any predator threats.

Whooping Cranes

Figure 3. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) while cattail (sp.) invasion has been restricted (B) due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide roosting sites for Whooping Cranes.

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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