Whooping Crane Nest Survey on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

A total of 86 Whooping Crane nests were located during the 2018 nesting survey on Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), Canada according to Rhona Kindopp, Manager of Resource Conservation, Parks Canada.

Whooping crane nest survey results

Kindopp explained: “We have a preliminary count of 86 nests, the second highest number ever recorded. Last year we set a record with 98 nests. We don’t count recently hatched chicks as part of this survey because we do a survey of fledged chicks each August. We are encouraged by the significant number of nests established this year. The previous record was 98 in 2017 and the before that it was 82 in 2014. We are seeing a large, relatively stable number of nests over the past few years, and the variance in the numbers of nests is within the normal range. We believe this bodes well for the ongoing health of the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Whooping Crane flock and we look forward to seeing the results when we count chicks later in the season.”

The next survey will be conducted in September to count the number of juvenile Whooping Cranes that hatched and survived.

WBNP’s central role

Notably, Kindopp pointed out that: “As the last natural whooping crane nesting habitat is under our stewardship, we play a central role in the nesting survey and in the fledgling survey that takes place later in the summer. Sharon Irwin, WBNP Resource Conservation Officer, WBNP Ecologist Lori Parker and John Conkin of the Canadian Wildlife Service took part in the survey, which was carried out May 25-29 for a total of 5 days.

The vast wetlands in northern Wood Buffalo National Park are the whooping cranes’ nesting area. They build their nests alongside the shallow ponds that contain the frogs and insects they feed on throughout the summer. There, the nesting pairs will raise one or occasionally two chicks which must then make the long trip back to Texas in the fall.

Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Conducting the survey

Kindopp described the survey procedure: “The survey is carried out by flying in a helicopter in a grid pattern over last year’s nest locations. If we don’t find a nest on a grid search we then fly to the old nest site and fly ever widening circles around site.  We also have recent locations for satellite banded birds to check.”

“The water levels in the ponds of the nesting area are good and overall habitat conditions look very positive this year. Clearly, the crane have found nesting conditions very favorable. Nesting started a bit later than usual this year because of cold temperatures.” according to Kindopp.

whooping crane

Figure 1. Whooping Crane sitting on nest. Note crane in center of photo. ©Parks Canada / Wood Buffalo National Park.

Due to the remote location of their nesting grounds and its inaccessibility to humans, the cranes are fairly secure while they are in the park. They face more challenges in their migration corridor through Canada and the United States due to habitat loss. We work with conservation agencies in the United States to monitor the progress of the cranes and share data on the state of their habitat.

Whooping crane life

Whooping Cranes live a hurried life during their reproduction period. When the nesting birds (5 years of age and older) leave their winter habitats on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast they seem to be in a rush. Spring migration periods from Aransas to Wood Buffalo are quicker than the fall migrations that travel south. The belief is that the nesters are in a rush to get to their nesting grounds so they can nest and rear their chicks during the short summer period available in their northern range.

Wild Whooping Cranes have now settled down on Wood Buffalo. They arrived there during late April and May after migrating 2,500 miles from Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast. Each nesting pair located their nesting site which is normally in the same general area as past years. Park records show that several pairs have nested in the same areas for 22 consecutive years. Soon after their arrival on their nesting grounds, they build their nest.

Nesting territories for Whooper pairs vary in size but average about 1,500 acres. They guard their territories. Nesting neighbors typically locate their nest at least one-half mile away. Nests are normally constructed in shallow water with vegetation from the local area.

Wild Whooping Cranes nesting information

According to several research reports, eggs are typically laid in late April to mid-May. Normally two eggs are laid but infrequently only one and rarely three have been observed in nests. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid and continues for about 30 days. Since incubation starts when the first egg is laid, the first chick hatched is about two days older than the second hatched. This variance in age is significant and creates problem for the younger chick. It is weaker than the older chick and has difficulty keeping up as the adults move around searching for food. The younger chick often dies due to its weakness. Records indicate that only about 10% to 15% of the second chicks hatched survive. Importantly, the second egg plays an important role in providing insurance that at least one chick survives.

From the time Whoopers begin egg laying until their chicks are a few months old, the family groups remain in their breeding territory. They feed there and don’t move long distances until after their chicks fledge.

Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016 are shown in the graph below.

whooping crane

Figure 2. Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016.

whooping cranes

Figure 3. Sass River – Whooping Crane nesting grounds. Photo by John D. McKinnon

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Figure 4. Whooping Crane on nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
Photo by Klaus Nigge

Parks Canada is a recognized leader in conservation. Through its Conservation and Restoration Program, Parks Canada takes actions to preserve national parks and contribute to the recovery of species-at-risk. Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers will publish an update of the ongoing Whooping Crane chick reproduction and related activities soon.

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Whitney Lake – Corps of Engineers’ Jewel for Whooping Cranes

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” are increasing in importance on Corps of Engineer lakes according to Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW). Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist explains that, “due to numerous land use changes on private lands, many wetlands and ponds that once served as Whooping Crane habitat are being drained and converted to other uses. So the large Corps of Engineer lakes are being used more and more by the cranes.”

Mostly, during migration Whooping Cranes “stopover” on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to eat and rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, feed, rest and then continue their journey. Importantly, Whoopers are compatible with other wildlife and briefly share their habitats. Ensuring that sufficient areas with the proper conditions as stopover sites are available is important for the survival of the species. Sensible practices applied by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.

FOTWW’s evaluations continue

FOTWW is continuing its evaluations of Corps lakes to identify areas with good Whooper habitat; habitats that need improvements; and areas that can be developed into good habitat. McConnell reasons that: “Corps lakes are federally owned and, if we can design projects that do not interfere with the Corps mission, then projects that help endangered Whooping Cranes should be authorized. Land cost are the major expense in such projects and using federal lands would eliminate that cost.”

Whitney Lake visited

McConnell visited Whitney Lake on April 12, 2018 to assess potential habitats for Whooping Cranes. Michael Champagne, USACE – Natural Resources Specialist, Fort Worth District made arrangements for our trip. Nickolus Mouthaan, Park Ranger led us on a tour of the lake to examine all potential places that could provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Brandon Mobley, Natural Resource Specialist, Fort Worth District Office participated in the tour. We discussed the natural resource objectives for Whitney Lake and needs for management (Figure 1).

Whitney Lake

Figure 1. Brandon Mobley, Natural Resource Specialist, Fort Worth District Office (on left) and Nickolus Mouthaan, Park Ranger (right) joined Chester McConnell, FOTWW during evaluation of “stopover habitats” on Whitney Lake. These men are standing on a broad expanse of grassland adjacent to a large lake inlet in H-10 Hunting Area. This is an excellent area to serve as “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Any cranes choosing to stopover here would have a wide glide path to land on the lake shore. The site is clear of obstructions and provides a gradual slope into the shallow water which is 2 to 10 inches deep in the roost area. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good and allows the Whoopers to spot any predator that may be lurking nearby. Whoopers can feed on aquatic animal in the lake and forage on insects and grains in nearby fields.

About Whitney Lake

Whitney Lake was authorized by the Flood Control Acts of August 18, 1941 to provide flood control, hydroelectric power, water conservation for domestic and industrial uses, recreation and other beneficial water uses. The lake is located along the county lines of Hill and Bosque Counties on the main stem of the Brazos River. It encompasses a total of 49,820 acres and has a flood capacity of 1,372,400 acre-feet of water. At elevation 533 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the normal pool level, the lake covers 23,560 acres and has a capacity of 627,100 acre feet.

Approximately 13,500 acres of government-owned land surrounding the lake are dedicated as natural areas. Primarily used for flood storage, this land is also intended for low impact public use with a minimum of facilities provided. The lake’s large size and diverse habitat support a number of native and introduced species of fish. The lake is a common stopping, resting and feeding area for Whooping Cranes, ducks, geese, shore birds and other waterfowl. This same land is primarily where FOTWW has recommended projects to increase benefits for Whooping Cranes (Figure 2).

Whitney Lake

Figure 2. This shore area on Whitney Lake is clear of obstructions and vegetation is short due partially to fluctuations in lake water levels. Any nearby predators could be easily detected. The water is shallow (2 to 10 inches) making it an excellent roost area. Overall it is an excellent Whooping Crane “stopover site”.

 

***** 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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