The extended winter or late spring has delayed some migrations, and even though two whooping cranes were verified in North Dakota on March 29, it will probably still be later April before all these birds have worked their way through the state. Whenever that occurs, it’s likely that I will have gone another year without seeing one of these endangered birds alive in the wild.
Every year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a call for people to report sightings of these striking white birds, as a fair number of the 300 or so birds in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population end up on the ground in North Dakota.
Biologists receive several dozen reports a year, and in spring, the first reports typically come in the first week of April, which probably won’t be the case this year.
Within two or three weeks in spring, the birds all move through North Dakota, but in fall the migration isn’t as urgent and reports can come in from late September stretching into late November, depending on weather.
Over the next few weeks as that spring migration occurs, some lucky people will get a chance to report sightings so the birds can be tracked.
These magnificent birds are regarded as unmistakable. I’ve seen them displayed in museums and they stand about five feet tall and have a wingspan of about seven feet from tip to tip.
They are bright white with black wing tips, which are visible only when the wings are outspread. In flight, they extend their long necks straight forward, while their long, slender legs extend out behind the tail. Whooping cranes typically migrate singly, or in groups of two to three birds and may be associated with sandhill cranes.
Other white birds, such as snow geese, swans and egrets, are often mistaken for whooping cranes.
The most common misidentification is pelicans, because their wingspan is similar and they tuck their pouch in flight, leaving a silhouette similar to a crane when viewed from below.
Anyone sighting whoopers should not disturb them, but record the date, time, location and the birds’ activity. Observers also should look closely for and report colored bands which may occur on one or both legs. Whooping cranes have been marked with colored leg bands to help determine their identity.
Whooping crane sightings should be reported to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701) 848-2466, or Long Lake, (701) 387-4397, national wildlife refuges; the state Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701) 328-6300, or to local game wardens across the state.
Reports help biologists locate important whooping crane habitat areas, monitor marked birds, determine survival and population numbers and identify times and migration routes.
by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers
Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (COE) Harlan County Lake recently to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. There is a growing need for more quality stopover areas during the Whoopers two 2,500 mile migrations each year. Typically, during migration, they stopover on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, feed and then continue their journey.
While checking out potential areas to protect and develop for Whooping Cranes, FOTWW also looks for opportunities to help other wild critters. Importantly, Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife and briefly share their habitats. Ensuring that sufficient areas with the proper conditions as stopover sites are available for Whoopers is important for the survival of the species. Practical management techniques implemented by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.
FOTWW and COE Tour Harlan County Lake
During FOTWW’s visit, Park Manager Tom Zikmund led us on a tour of the lake property so that we could to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Many potential areas were observed.
Harlan County Lake is large and has a comprehensive program. At top of conservation pool, the lake covers 13,250 surface acres. At top of the flood control pool, the lake covers 23,100 surface acres. A total of 17,750 acres of land surrounds the lake’s nearly 75 miles of shoreline.
There have been considerable fluctuations in lake water levels over the years. During drawdowns of lake waters large expanses of mud flats and shallow pools are created that favor many wading birds including Whooping Cranes. Importantly much of the lake bed has a gradual rise in elevation. When water levels in the lake rise some shallow areas become too deep for wading birds while new shallow areas are created near the shore.
COE Stewardship Mission
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental stewardship mission is to manage and conserve natural resources, consistent with ecosystem management principles, while providing public outdoor recreation to serve the needs of present and future generations. The Corps works in cooperation with several partners including the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Because of this cooperative relationship, the Corps has been able to enhance and revitalize thousands of acres of land surrounding the lake.
Harlan County Lake’s 7,875 acres of grassland is primarily classified as mixed grass prairie. Native prairies are managed by prescribed fire and hay production. Such practices help prevent invasion by non-native species, enhance prairie community health and increase wildlife habitat values. These grasslands can also provide important foraging areas for Whooping Cranes.
An important and effective habitat enhancement tools is the COE’s Agricultural Lease Program on 3,500 acres. This program makes many acres of public lands available for lease to farmers for the purpose of crop and hay production. Leased lands agreements include specific conditions to protect and conserve soil and water while enhancing vegetation and wildlife resources. Major crops include corn, milo and wheat that are rotated annually. Leases require that portions of the crops be left in the fields to provide abundant food and cover for wildlife. These crop lands are near the lake and can also provide very important foraging areas for Whooping Cranes.
Recreation Uses of Harlan Lake
Although not a primary purpose for the construction of Harlan County Lake, recreation has increasingly become a major component in the Corp’s multiple use approach to managing our nation’s resources. Recreation and favorable fish and wildlife habitats are among those beneficial uses derived from this lake and others like it. With lake property open to all, there are many attractive areas for outdoor recreation including birding, water sports, hunting, fishing, and boating, or just relaxed living.
Some of Harlan County Lake’s shore area is developed for recreational use and Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” is not compatible with some of these areas. Importantly, considerable areas of the lake’s nearly 75 miles of shoreline is shallow and is available as good “stopover roosting areas” for the cranes. Whoopers normally roost in areas with a water depth of 2 inches to 10 inches to help protect themselves from predators.
Several Whooping Cranes have been recorded using stopover sites on Harlan County Lake property. Whoopers normally migrate over or near Harlan County Lake during April (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). Whoopers normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart early the following morning.
A big surprise to FOTWW is the use of Harlan County Lake by many species of birds.
COE Park Manager Tom Zikmund told FOTWW: “It has been an amazing year for migratory waterfowl here at Harlan County Reservoir. Here are some of the highlights: An estimated one million snow geese stopped over on the lake from about February 26 – March 5. This is one of the largest numbers we have had over the years. In addition we had an estimated 50,000 Canada geese. Canada geese were here this winter from about December 20 thru February 1, 2018. Currently approximately 150 White Pelicans are on the lake. Also, there are currently about 15 different species of ducks on Harlan County Lake including mallards, greenwing teal, redheads, scaups, pintails, gadwalls, shovelers, merganzers, buffleheads, canvasbacks, and goldeneyes. We estimate that there are approximately 25,000 ducks on the reservoir. Likewise, some grebes and coots are showing up as well. We have observed several groups of sandhill cranes loafing on the exposed lake bed but to date no whooping cranes have been reported. Whooping cranes have stopped over on Harlan County Lake in the past but we have not spotted them recently. Some may have visited and were not observed.
Tom added, “The birding tourism is really picking up and we have had several groups and individuals stop by the lake office over the last few weeks to watch the migration.”
Many have asked us how the Friends of the Wild Whoopers’, (FOTWW) “stopover habitat” program is doing. We can say that since we started our program that it has been met with overwhelming interest and many positive accolades. What we are happy to see is that the military, reservations and Corps of Engineers are very enthusiastic and eager to provide suitable and healthy habit for our wild whooping cranes as they migrate along the Central Flyway.
FOTWW is hard at work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect and improve Corps’ lakes for Whooping Cranes “stopover habitat”. During their 2,500-mile migration from Canada to Texas the Whooping Cranes must stop and rest 15 to 20 times. Unfortunately this important habitat is being lost due to developments of various kinds. So FOTWW sought the Corps help. The Corps has over 100 large lakes in the migration corridor that wild Whooping Cranes use two times each year. So the Corps agreed to help and a Memorandum of Understanding has been developed between them and FOTWW.
Whooping Cranes have completed their fall migration from Wood Buffalo nesting area to Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. They normally stopover an average of about 10 to 20 times during their journey. They need to rest and feed occasionally during the 2,500 mile trip. Some of these birds stopover on Corps’ lakes and FOTWW believed many more will use the lakes once more habitats have been improved.
Corps lakes as potential stopover habitat
Chester McConnell, President of Friends of the Wild Whoopers’ is currently traveling to Corps lakes and making evaluations of their potential as stopover habitat. To date, he has visited Benbrook Lake, Lavon Lake Bardwell Lake and Granger Lakes in Texas. In Nebraska, he visited Harlan County Lake. And in Kansas he recently completed visits to Wilson Lake, Kanopolis Lake and Milford Lake. McConnell explained that he was pleasantly surprised at the currently excellent quality of some lake properties. And, he followed, “I believe that much more habitat can be greatly improved at very low costs.” FOTWW is committed to continue their cooperative project with the Corps to provide more habitat for the endangered Whoopers.
Stopover habitats already evaluated
FOTWW has already completed evaluations of Whooping Crane habitats on 31 U.S. military bases and 8 Indian Reservations. All had some good habitats but many needed improvements. FOTWW prepared evaluation reports with recommendations for improvements where needed.
Some of the wetland pond habitats on military bases and Indian Reservations will require minor management to suit the needs of Whoopers but the managers are up to the task advised McConnell. Military bases are legally required to have natural resources programs and the stopover project is completely compatible with the laws. Project leaders do not request base officials to do anything that would interfere with the military mission of the bases.
“Stopover places are just as important as wintering and nesting areas because Whooping Cranes can’t fly the entire 2,500 migration corridor in one trip,” McConnell explained.
Won’t you please consider helping?
If you would like to help us continue this on going project, would you please consider becoming a member/friend or making a donation to help our efforts and some of our expenses? You can either become a member/friend or you can send us a donation by check or PayPal. Please click here .
FOTWW is an all volunteer nonprofit organization and no one receives a salary, so all of your contributions go to help the only natural wild flock of Whooping Cranes remaining on earth.
Won’t you please consider helping us so we can help them?
Endangered, there is still time, but extinct is forever!
Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Fall migration is coming to a close and whooping cranes have all moved south out of their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). It was a record breeding year in WBNP; with above average conditions contributing to an estimated 63 fledged whooping cranes headed South on their first migration to Texas. The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to about 50 days to complete. It will probably be a few more weeks until the entire Aransas Wood Buffalo whooping crane population has arrived on the Texas coast. We were able to fit a few whooping crane juveniles this August in WBNP with new cellular-based telemetry equipment, and I want to walk you through the fall migration of one of these juveniles and its parents.
First off, let me provide a bit of information about our new telemetry devices. In our former telemetry study, we used satellite-based telemetry. These devices provided 3-5 locations every 24 hours and communicated that via space satellite. Our new telemetry devices have the capability to provide significantly more data compared to our previously used devices. We are now using cellular-based telemetry devices, meaning they relay location data using ground-based cellular towers, just like your mobile phone does. The device is powered by a solar-charged battery. As long as the marked bird is in the range of a cellular tower, we receive a data download every day via internet. Each data download contains locations for the bird every 30 minutes over the past 24 hours. The new telemetry devices are also equipped with what is called an accelerometer, meaning we can determine the speed of the bird, indicating if it is in flight or on the ground.
The journey of “7A”, fall 2017 migration:
On 2 August, a team of biologist captured and marked a 3 month old whooping crane in Wood Buffalo National Park, around the nest where he was hatched about 60 miles south of the Great Slave Lake, and fitted him with one of our new cellular-based telemetry units (identified as “7A”). This young whooping crane and his parents left their breeding area the morning of 26 September, to start on their long journey south.
On the first night away from their nesting area, 7A and his family roosted on Gipsy Lake, 35 miles SE of Fort McMurray, AB. The next morning (27 September) the family traveled to Witchekan Lake near Spiritwood, SK and spent the night. On the morning of 28 September, they traveled to their “staging ground” area, the prairie pothole region of Central Saskatchewan. They spent the next month foraging on waste grains in the agricultural areas and in wetlands around Prud’ Homme, SK. After a strong frontal passage bringing northerly winds and colder weather, they proceeded south on the morning of 29 October.
They crossed the Canada/United States border around mid-day near the NW corner of North Dakota and spent that night on the banks of the Missouri River about 20 miles SE of Bismarck, North Dakota. The next morning, 30 October, they continued south, roughly following the Missouri River as it winds through South Dakota. With a strong tailwind, they were able to cross South Dakota in about 3 hours, without stopping. They continued through Nebraska that day, crossing the Platte River just east of Gibbon, Nebraska. They did not stop in Nebraska either, traversing the state in about 4 hours. That evening they arrived at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Central Kansas, known as the largest interior wetland in the United States. This is a well-known and established migration stopover habitat location for not only whooping cranes, but a number of other migratory bird species. The next afternoon, on 31 October, they traveled about 20 miles south to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, where they would spend the next 12 days. Quivira NWR received a record amount of migrating whooping crane use this fall, with over 112 individuals reported there, more than 25% of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population.
They left Quivira NWR on the morning of 12 November and traveled south about 150 miles to an area of native mixed-grass prairie about 3 miles west of Fairview, Oklahoma. They spent 3 days there, leaving on the morning of 15 November and crossing the Texas border mid-day just to the east of Wichita Falls. That night, they roosted on a farm pond in Bosque County in central Texas. The morning of 16 November, the family continued south through Texas, stopping briefly in southern Bastrop County and then northern Gonzales County. Evidently they were disturbed that night as they made several, short nighttime movements just west of Waelder, Texas. Nocturnal flight is fairly rare and relatively unknown for whooping cranes, but our new telemetry devices allows us to observe this behavior. Only a short distance from their winter home, they left the morning of 17 November and headed south. Early that afternoon, they flew over Victoria, just north of Aransas NWR. Shortly thereafter, they made it to the Tatton Unit of Aransas NWR and roosted there along Salt Creek. The next morning, they made a short jump south and set up what looks to be their wintering territory here on Aransas NWR, where they will likely spend most of their time over the next several months.
The “7A” family had a fairly normal fall migration, taking 52 days and a bit over 2,500 miles to complete. You’ll note that the “pit stops” that they made along the way almost always were tied to quality wetland and prairie habitats. Protecting and restoring these types of habitats across the vast Great Plains of North America really is key to making sure whooping crane migrations are successful.
Texas Whooper Watch
Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (512) 389-TXWWW (8999)
Current conditions at Aransas NWR:
Food & Water Abundance:
You’ve likely seen many of the news articles related to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on Aransas NWR, so I won’t go into detail here on that topic. But from all appearances, the coastal marsh habitat that whooping cranes rely on here in the winter seem to have held up well to what is a natural disturbance. While the human impact has been significant, natural habitats often quickly recover after this type of event. From a long-term perspective, the freshwater inflows associated with the hurricane’s rain event will improve coastal marsh condition. We’ve seen a number of whooping cranes that have arrived at Aransas NWR foraging successfully in the coastal marsh as they have for eons. We will continue to monitor habitat conditions and whooping crane behavior and adjust our management accordingly.
Long-time volunteers recognized:
I want to take a minute to recognize a few long-time volunteers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge that really do make a difference for our wildlife and wild places. First off, Ron Smudy, a long-time volunteer at Aransas, will be awarded as the 2017 Coastal Steward by the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation at the annual Environmental Awards banquet on 7 December. Ron has put a great deal of “sweat equity” into Aransas over the years, from mowing, cutting and spraying invasive species to helping our maintenance staff with all sorts of projects. We truly wouldn’t have the Refuge as we know it without folks like Ron. Additionally, I want to recognize Fred and Linda Lanoue, long-time board members of the Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island Refuge. They will soon be leaving Texas and were honored this past Saturday at a luncheon, thanking them for all their work with environmental causes around the Texas coastal bend. Fred and Linda’s tireless work with the FAMI board help us accomplish worthwhile projects that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Unfortunately, both Ron and the Lanoue’s were personally impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Our hearts go out to them as they start new chapters in their lives and we reflect on all the good work they have done at Aransas NWR.