More Stopover Habitat for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes

August 6, 2019
by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

“Stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes received another large boost this week. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) and their Corps of Engineers (COE) partners recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional COE lakes. During the past two years there has been remarkable increasing awareness and interest about Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” needs throughout the seven state mid-continent migration corridor. FOTWW President Chester McConnell is thrilled and remarked, “It’s about time”.

McConnell explains that, “Habitat is the most important need of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane population. It is the only remaining wild, self-sustaining Whooping Crane population on planet Earth. The Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Cranes can take care of themselves with two exceptions. They need man to help protect their habitat and for people not to shoot them.” So FOTWW is dedicated to protecting and managing existing and potential “stopover habitat” where we can. Whoopers need many areas to stop, rest and feed during their two annual 2,500 mile migrations from Canada to the Texas coast.

During past 60 years, most interest in Whooping Crane habitat has focused on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Aransas Refuge is the wintering habitat and Wood Buffalo is the nesting habitat for the cranes. This major focus on Aransas and Wood Buffalo habitats has been a wise management decision but over time the need for morel focus is needed on “stopover habitats”. In the past, most of the “stopover habitats” have been on small farm ponds and wetlands. Unfortunately for Whooping Cranes and many other wildlife species, these habitats have been and are being lost at an alarming rate due to changing land uses including larger agriculture fields and various kinds of development.

Unfortunately, relatively little interest has focused on “stopover habitat” where the Whoopers stop to rest and feed every night during migration. These stopover locations are scattered all along the 2,500 mile long migration corridor between Aransas Refuge and Wood Buffalo. Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist stresses that “stopover habitats” are absolutely necessary and the Whooping Crane population could not exist without these areas. Importantly, Whooping Cranes spend 8 to 10 weeks migrating from their Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge winter habitat. They cannot fly the total 2,500 mile distance without stopping to feed and rest. 15 to 30 times. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats. McConnell compared a human automobile trip of about 3,000 mile from New York to California. The driver would have to stop at three or four motels to rest and about 12 restaurants for meals. So it is for Whooping Crane needs for “stopover habitats”.

Expanding WC population

FOTWW is often asked, what is the organization doing for Whooping Cranes? Our answer is that we are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. It’s happening on COE lakes, Indian Reservations and military bases throughout the migration corridor. We recently completed assessments on 27 lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

Importance of Habitat for Whooping Cranes

FOTWW has very little funding assistance and decided to work with government agencies and Indian tribes who own land distributed all along the migration corridor from North Dakota to Texas. Land is the most expensive item and the Corps, military and Indian tribes already own thousands of acres. McConnell met with these land owners and explained the habitat needs of Whooping Cranes and how they could contribute without interfering with their normal missions. Fortunately, there was exceptional support and FOTWW has been working on the mission for over three years.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell recently visited four more COE lakes in Texas to evaluate potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes: Jim Chapman Lake, Ray Roberts Lake, Lewisville Lake and Hords Creek Lake. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our visit.

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable habitat evaluation official visit.

The following photos and descriptions will assist readers to understand our work.

Habitat for Whooping Cranes
A five person team using a large boat made observations of representative samples of potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes on Ray Roberts Lake. Team members in photo left to right: Martin K. Underwood, Environmental Stewardship Business Line Manager for the Trinity Region, USACE; Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, FOTWW; Nick Wilson, Lead Ranger for Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE; Rob Jordan, Lake Manager for both Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE. Team member FOTWW President Chester McConnell present but not in photo.
Habitat for Whooping Cranes
This photo exhibits one of the better “Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” that we observed on Ray Roberts Lake. It is currently suitable as a “stopover habitat”. Note the callout pointing to the narrow bar where Whoopers can walk out, feed and rest while being able to observe any predaters in the area. Note the two yellow arrows pointing to the long wide open areas where Whoopers can forage and rest.

***** 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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A High-wire Act to Protect Whooping Cranes from Powerlines

by Rebecca Heisman | March 04, 2019

This story was originally published in the Winter 2018-2019 edition of American Bird Conservancy‘s Bird Conservation Magazine.

Kansas power companies join forces to prevent crane powerline collisions

The Whooping Crane is a bird of distinction. North America’s tallest bird and one of its most endangered species, this gleaming-white, 15-pound wetland denizen almost became as mythical as the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon. In the early 1940s, only 15 remained.

Thanks to years of hard-fought conservation gains, the one remaining self-sustaining migratory Whooping Crane flock now numbers more than 500 individuals. Every year, they fly from breeding grounds in Canada’s remote Wood Buffalo National Park to winter on the Texas coast, before heading back north again.

This annual journey of 2,500 miles each way takes the birds through the heartland of North America. There, they rely on wetlands in the Great Plains to rest and refuel. Over the years, two key areas in Kansas — Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and a collection of preserves known as Cheyenne Bottoms — have provided safe haven for Whooping Cranes passing through the state.

The Peril of Powerlines
Whooping Crane. Photo by USFWS

Migration can be an especially vulnerable time, as travel-weary birds set down in relatively unfamiliar places. In the past, hunters were a major problem. Occasionally, a protected crane is still shot by accident or intentionally, but these days, a far more pervasive danger looms large over the flat landscapes these birds navigate: powerlines.

The Peril of Powerlines

Especially in the poor visibility of dawn, dusk, or fog, birds frequently collide with them. Each year in the United States, as many as 25 million birds die after colliding with powerlines. And a 2008 report by researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Texas State University found that powerline collisions are the number-one known cause of mortality for recently fledged migratory Whooping Cranes.

Fortunately, since the 1980s, a group of forward-looking power company representatives called the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC) has been developing methods to reduce both collisions and electrocutions of birds. The challenge is to try to keep run-ins between cranes and lines to an absolute minimum.

Kansas utilities are now working with conservationists to ensure a brighter future for Whooping Cranes and other birds. Nearing completion, their efforts to make powerlines more crane-friendly provide a heartening example of how the private, public, and nonprofit sectors can come together to do good for birds.

whooping crane powerline collisions
Whooping Crane family. Photo by Richard Seeley/Shutterstock

Working to Safeguard Weary Whoopers

In 2010, the USFWS issued guidance for how power companies in the region should address the risk of Whooping Crane collisions with powerlines. Ideally, the guidance document advised, new lines constructed within the cranes’ migratory corridor should be buried underground. In many cases, however, burying lines isn’t feasible, so the USFWS also proposed an alternative: Utilities could opt to “mark” their lines, outfitting them with devices to make them more visible to birds in flight.

Many of Kansas’ power companies are small co-ops. Eric Johnson of Westar Energy, one of the state’s larger utilities, describes a typical outfit as “maybe one executive director and a crew of five linemen.” Lacking on-staff biologists and other resources, small companies would have had trouble implementing the new USFWS recommendations on their own.

The solution? Kansas’ electrical utilities formed a flock. The first step was simply identifying which lines were the highest priority for marking — that is, which ones most likely hung in the path of travel-weary cranes.

“Most people look at a map of the lower 48 states and they see an arrow where a migration corridor is, and then they see powerlines cutting across that, and they get worried,” says Anne Lacy, a researcher with the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. “But it’s okay if a bird is flying 2 miles above that powerline — that’s perfectly safe. But those stopover areas are really critical. The cranes are in an unknown place, they’re tired because they’ve just flown several hundred miles, and they maybe aren’t as aware of their surroundings. They’re coming in low, it might be evening when there’s low light, and that’s where it’s critical to either not have those powerlines at all, or if they are there, to have them marked.”

Power Companies and Birdwatchers Unite

Starting within a 5-mile radius around Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms, the Kansas utilities worked with environmental consultants on an assessment that considered factors such as lines’ proximity to crane roosting and feeding sites. The USFWS guidance instructed that when new lines were installed in sensitive areas, not only should new lines be marked — additional stretches of line elsewhere should be marked as well, with this additional step aimed at further offsetting the risks posed by new construction.

Small companies may not own additional lines in high-priority areas, however, so the utilities pooled their resources, each contributing money to a fund held by a nonprofit to be used by whomever did have high-priority lines to mark. An advisory group including representatives from nonprofits such as The Nature Conservancy and the Kansas Ornithological Society, government agencies, and power companies was formed to provide additional guidance for the project.

“It’s been encouraging to see everybody come together for one very specific purpose,” says the Kansas Ornithological Society’s Chuck Otte, who was an early recruit to the advisory group. “The representatives from the power companies, they’re learning about how birds behave and about our concerns as birdwatchers. And as a birdwatcher, I’ve learned more about different kinds of insulators and powerlines than I ever thought possible. All of that stuff has been absolutely fascinating to me.”

Whooping Cranes. Photo by Al Perry

Making the Lines Easier to See

“There are a lot of different line-marking products out there on the market,” says Westar’s Eric Johnson. “Some of them have had scientific studies done on how effective they are, others haven’t, but when it comes down to it, anything that makes the line more noticeable or larger in diameter will do something for birds.

“Some of them are just a spiral of pre-formed plastic that wraps around the line and makes it more obvious, and then there are others that are a little more active,” Johnson continues. “You can clip them on the line and they spin with the wind.”

Some of these devices can be installed from the ground, but on the largest cross-country lines the work needs to be done from above via helicopter. In these cases, a highly trained lineman sits outside the helicopter while it hovers alongside the line, then reaches out and clips on the device by hand.

Protecting More than Cranes

The work began in 2015. So far, 160 miles of the identified high-priority lines have been marked in and around the two protected areas. According to Johnson, all 113 miles of high-priority lines at Cheyenne Bottoms will be completed by the end of 2019, as well as 90 miles of the total of 130 at Quivira.

Otte acknowledges that it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of Whooping Crane collisions with powerlines, but he says the work makes a difference. “These are things that aren’t just going to protect Whooping Cranes, they’re going to protect Sandhill Cranes, they’re going to protect ducks and geese, they’re going to help all sorts of birds. So that in and of itself is a success.

“I mean, we all want to have electricity,” says Johnson, “but how can we provide electricity to the people of this country while minimizing the potential negative impact for the wildlife? To me, that’s what this is all about.”

Whooping Crane in flight. Photo by Connie Barr/Shutterstock

Co-existing Along Migration Routes

Decades of hard work have already been done to nurture and protect Whooping Cranes. The result has been one of the greatest bird comeback stories, and a shining example of two countries collaborating to save a species. Federal, state, and provincial agencies from both the United States and Canada, working with nonprofit groups as well as the private sector, continue to preserve and manage key habitat and closely monitor the cranes’ nesting success. New technologies such as satellite tracking are enabling biologists to learn more than ever before about their behavior and annual migration. And now the Kansas line-marking project provides reasons to hope that cranes and people can coexist along the migration routes.

Anne Lacy says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Whooping Cranes’ future. “We’re living on this landscape and we are having an impact, period, full stop. Now, how do we lessen that impact on the things that are living there already? That’s probably a lesson that all of us can learn.”

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Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes

To our Canadian followers. If you’re in the Saskatoon, SK area on Thursday, January 17th, why not check out Mark Bidwell’s presentation “Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes” put on by Saskatoon Nature Society. The public is welcome and it starts at 7:30 PM. The presentation will be held in Room 1130, Health Sciences E-wing, University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.

Mark specializes in endangered species and he is responsible for whooping crane research and conservation. In his talk he will discuss the current status of whooping cranes and what we know about their behaviour and movements during the breeding season and on their migration through Saskatchewan. Finally he will talk about what can be done to conserve cranes and their habitats.

Again, everyone is welcome and it is free to attend! For more information go to www.saskatoonnaturesociety.sk.ca/

Whooping Crane
Somewhere in Saskatchewan. Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann

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Future Whooping Crane Island Habitat on Canton Lake, Oklahoma

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats as time goes by. During their 2,500 mile migration from their Canadian nesting area to their Texas wintering habitat they must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Dwindling wetlands

Private lands have traditionally provided most of the “stopover habitats” but many of these properties are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming. So, what can we do to help? Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contends that lands and waters on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) lakes, military base wetlands and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Many of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife…

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 21 USACE lakes within the wild Whooping Crane migration corridor. Some of these properties currently have suitable stopover wetland habitats while other areas could be enhanced with minor work.

USACE lakes within the 6 state migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Canton Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable.

Canton Lake, Oklahoma

Canton Lake contains 7,910 acres of surface water and 14,861 acres of public hunting land that is managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). This area is open year round, except for the migratory bird refuge which is closed annually from 15 October to 15 February. Canton Lake’s purpose is to provide flood risk management, water supply, fish and wildlife conservation and recreation.  Since its impoundment more than 60 years ago, it has been enjoyed by millions of people. The lake offers extensive opportunity for outdoor recreation activities.

FOTWW is aware that Canton Lake, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. Both USACE and ODWC personnel have observed Whooping Cranes on the lake several times.

As FOTWW Wildlife Biologist, I visited Canton Lake on October 10, 2018 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE made arrangements for our trip. George Mayfield, Assistant Lake Manager and Chase Kokojan, ODWC participated in the lake stopover habitat evaluation. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Canton Lake we made a tour of the lake property by vehicle to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We identified several potential stopover habitat areas one of which is described below.

Canton Lake
Figure 1. Satellite photo of island at western end of Canton Lake. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. Additional treatments may be necessary to maintain the vegetation at a height height of 2 feet or less. Whooping Cranes require areas where they can readily observe predators such as coyotes and bobcats.

 

Canton Lake
Figure 2. This photo displays the land base at the boat ramp, the cattail and phragmites plants and the island (same as in Fig. 1) in the background. If managed properly the island and shore area can become excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wild creatures. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. A second treatment may be necessary to get the areas described in good condition.

DESCIPTION OF POTENTIAL “STOPOVER HABITATS”:

The photos (Figs.1 and 2 are potential “stopover habitats” for endangered Whooping Cranes to rest and roost. The island is located in an isolated location and not near frequently travel roads or power lines. The size and configuration of the wetland area varies with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were approximately 1.5 feet higher than “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas and island are essentially clear of bushes and trees. Horizontal visibility from the island and shore roost sites, if properly managed, would allow Whooping Cranes to detect any predators that may be in the area. The slope of the shore and lake edge is gradual and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches would be available during “normal” lake water levels. There is little emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at these roost sites. The locations are 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Hundreds of acres of foraging areas are located on ODWC wildlife food plots and in nearby agriculture fields. In addition there are wild foods in adjacent managed grasslands and wetlands that provide an abundance of insects, wild seeds and other wild food.

 

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

***** 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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