Operation Whooping Crane – A Bit of History

by Pam Bates

In 1966, official concern over the vulnerability of the Whooping Crane population led to a joint agreement between Canadian Wildlife Service, (CWS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS) to collaborate on a captive-breeding program to conserve the species. To accomplish this, eggs would have to be removed from nests in the wild at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP) and the man chosen and best suited for this task was wildlife biologist, Ernie Kuyt who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The whooping crane nesting area, a maze of water and land. Click photo to enlarge.

For eleven years, Bob Isbister worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service and for three years worked the flights during the whooping crane egg collection. Following is a memory of Bob’s during the egg collection at WBNP and working with Ernie Kuyt.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Bob for allowing us to share his memories and photos by USFWS and National Geographic.

Operation Whooping Crane by Bob Isbister

I worked for CWS for 11 years (1967 to 1978) as Wildlife Technician in the Surveys and Enforcement section (we rarely engaged in enforcement). I then left to pursue my ambition to go to university, graduating in 1981 with a Commerce Degree and have spent the ensuing years in the field of Economic Development.

206 Bird Dog Plane

My job in the bird dog plane was to record the reaction of the adult whooping cranes during the whooping crane egg pick up. How far they flew away etc. They all stayed within a few hundred yards, hence the importance of Ernie’s weekly, then daily flights to the nesting grounds. For the first couple of years, I had to take a “tourist” with me, either a scientist and once a well known National Geographic photographer.

The late Ernie Kuyt and the pilot had mastered locating most of the nests. Ernie conducted several pre-pick up flights to monitor egg laying. The plan was to pick up the eggs late in the incubation period to minimize the chance of the adults abandoning the nest.

The daily preflight briefing to learn the exact nest locations and the order in which they will be visited. Click on photo to enlarge.
The helicopter flying low over the whooping crane nesting grounds in search of nests containing eggs. You can see the helicopter in the lower right quadrant. Click on photo to enlarge.

Now this wasn’t easy flying, as we had to fly “orbits” while the chopper was on the ground for the whooping crane egg pick up. With about 14 nests done in 2 days, this represents a lot of turning, often made worse by turbulence. Luckily, I have pretty much an iron gut for this, but these poor guys invariably got sick and didn’t always hit the bag.

Operation Whooping Crane
That is me on the float on the 206, feeling mighty green under the gills. Pit stop at four mile lake south of Fort Smith. The egg pick up was done in two stages so as not to imperil all the eggs at once in the event of a chopper failure. This was the second year of the pickup operation (1968) and everyone was hyper vigilant. Click on photo to enlarge.

I remember lying down on the dock thinking “no way in hell I’m going back up in the afternoon”. But after a few minutes and the pilots call to “lets go to town and get some bacon and eggs, away I went, brand new again.

A sock and a stick

There is cute story about the officials designing a special box to help Ernie carry the whooping crane eggs from the nest to the helicopter. Upon seeing this ‘special’ box, Ernie said “Hell I’m not going to carry that thing in the marsh I’ve got a wool sock which is way better!” So he brought an extra woolen sock and proceeded to carry the eggs out, one by one. It was quite the sight seeing Ernie with the sock, egg inside in one hand and a stick for trudging back through the marsh in the other hand.

Ernie Kuyt approaching a nest (located in upper right) as helicopter waits. Click on photo to enlarge.
Ernie Kuyt, Canadian Wildlife Service, carries a whooping crane egg in a sock to a waiting helicopter at Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Click on photo to enlarge.

Traveling in style and the press

Eggs flying in style thanks to the Goverment of Canada to Laurel, Maryland. From L to R, Ray Erickson, Director Patuxent Research Centre and Glen Smart Asst Director. Click on photo to enlarge.
This operation was a big deal and attracted the press at every fuel stop. At the time the Whooping Cranes were in big trouble with only about 40 still alive. Click on photo to enlarge.

Overall, a very successful international project. Today there are an estimated 506 Whooping Cranes in the Aransas Wood Buffalo population.

Four Mile Lake

Four Mile Lake, just a few miles SE of Fort Smith, NWT. Click photo to enlarge.

The last memory and comment is about Four Mile Lake; it is about 1 mile long and maybe 400 yards wide, oriented NNW by SSE. There was marker buoy at both ends of the lake about 300 yards before the end. If you weren’t airborne by then it was abort time. Theoretically that is!

One afternoon we took off to the south in the freshly fueled 206 heading south. We were still on the water at the abort buoy, but undeterred the pilot pulled into the air; now I must say that those small black spruce that rimmed the lake never looked so tall. We cleared them and then the plane sunk to just above the muskeg where we coaxed more airspeed and altitude and away we went. I’ve never liked the 206 since!

 

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this historical article but Friends of the Wild Whoopers opposes egg collection from the nests of the wild whooping crane flock.

***** 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.

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
                                                                   

Share

37 Fledglings Counted During Whooping Crane Survey On Wood Buffalo National Park

whooping crane survey
A photo of one of the 2019 fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have completed their joint whooping crane fledgling surveys on Wood Buffalo National Park and surrounding area. A total of 37 fledged chicks from 36 sets of parents were observed. An increase from last year’s 24 fledglings. It appears that conditions at the park were better than last year. May rainfall was only 84% of normal, however, in June rainfall was 141% above normal, with most (22mm) of that falling on June 2 just as some of the chicks were hatching.

The fledgling survey is done in between the end of July and mid-August.  Fledglings are birds that have reached an age where they can fly. The technique for this survey is very similar to the breeding pair survey.  The nest locations are known so that the staff can fly directly to the nest.  If the Whooping Cranes have not been successful in raising a chick they may still be in their territory or they could be kilometers away. If a pair does have a chick, they are generally found fairly close to their nest.

whooping crane survey
Looking for fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Importance Of Surveys

Both the Nest and the Fledgling Surveys are part of the world-class restoration plan that has made the endangered Whooping Crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. By counting the number of fledgling chicks, Parks Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others gain important insights into the health of the world’s last remaining natural nesting flock of Whooping Cranes that contribute greatly to our ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

whooping crane survey
Helicopter used during fledgling survey. © Photo by Parks Canada

WBNP and nearby areas provide the last natural nesting habitat for the endangered Whooping Cranes. The birds are hatched in and near WBNP each spring. After they fledge they migrate 2,500 miles to their winter habitat on, or near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. During their 2,500 mile migration they stopover 20 to 30 times to rest, forage for food and roost during the nights. Then, the following April the total population returns to WBNP to repeat the reproduction cycle again.

 

The video below, sent to FOTWW by Parks Canada is of one of the 2019 fledglings.

FOTWW thanks all those involved in this recent survey and a thank you to Parks Canada for sending us photos and short video for everyone to enjoy.

Whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada

 

whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada
Share

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.

 

Share

BREAKING NEWS: 97 WHOOPING CRANE NESTS COUNTED ON CANADA’S WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK

BREAKING NEWS: Ninety seven (97) Whooping Crane nests were counted on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds during May 2019. Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service cooperated on the count and released this information today. This is the second highest nest count ever for the endangered Whooping Cranes. The largest number of nests ever counted was 98 in 2017.

Happy New Year
Whooping Crane on nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo by Klaus Nigge

Additional information on this great news will be published soon.

 

Share