Abundant Whooping Crane stopover habitat on some Corps of Engineer Lakes in Dakotas and Montana

By Pam Bates, VP, Fiends of the Wild Whoopers

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) efforts to protect develop and properly manage wild Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” continues. Many people ask what FOTWW does when we travel throughout the Whooping Crane migration area. So we will provide some answers.

Our wildlife biologist Chester McConnell and field assistant Dorothy McConnell travel to all seven states in the Whooping Crane migration corridor to assist where we can. During the past two years they have traveled to 34 Corps of Engineer (COE) lakes in 7 states. They recently returned from a long trip to South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana to evaluate “stopover habitat on 7 COE lakes. FOTWW’s objective is to protect, improve or replace decreasing habitats. All of these lakes are on the Missouri River which flows through the prime migration route for the Whoopers.

FOTWW’s team linked up with COE Conservation Biologist David Hoover in Kansas City. FOTWW selects the lakes to evaluate and David makes arrangements with the lake managers that will guide our evaluation team around the lakes. The FOTWW-COE formed a “stopover habitat” team.

First stop

FOTWW’s first visit was on the COE’s Lewis and Clark Lake in Nebraska and South Dakota (9-10-2019). The lake is approximately 28 miles in length with over 90 miles of shoreline. The 31,400-acre reservoir has some good “stopover habitat” but much more needs serious management attention. Phragmites, an invasive plant has spread over large areas in and around the lake. Such areas will not be used by Whooping Cranes unless management controls the phragmites (See Fig.1).

Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 1. Phragmites is the brown colored plants in the river (green arrows point to a small fraction of the phragmites). The plants grow in thick stands to a height of 6 to 8 feet. It is growing all across the lake on areas where shallow waters areas have formed. The numerous shallow water areas are caused by eroded soils from upstream areas.

The good news is that the COE has plans to use aerial spraying of herbicides on 2,200 acres of phragmites during April 2020 to kill the invasive plant. After the dead plants are dried, they will be burned. This will result in good waterfowl and Whooping Crane habitat on many sites. Figure 2 shows a helicopter spraying herbicide.

Figure 2. Helicopter in process of spraying herbicides on phragmites in Lewis and Clark Lake. The green arrows point to some of the phragmites.

McConnell described an excellent project that the team observed upstream from Chief Standing Bridge: “Here a large island is being managed for threatened least tern and piping plover. Managers have cleared most of the woody vegetation and used prescribed fire to kill back most to the weeds and other vegetation. This same habitat will also be good stopover habitat for endangered Whooping Cranes” (Figure 3).

Figure 3. After spraying the phragmites with herbicides and it has dried, the COE burns the dead vegetation to create habitat for birds including Whooping Cranes, terns and plovers that need open areas to forage, rest, nest and roost. Note the green arrow pointing to a person setting fire to the phragmites.
Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 4. After the control burn in figure 3, the area can be managed for a variety of wild creatures. Whooping Cranes will benefit from some of these improved stopover habitats.
Figure 5. Islands/sandbars in Lewis and Clark Lake provide good “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks manages these same habitats for endangered least tern and piping plover. (See green arrows).

More whooping crane stopover habitat further north

Further north, the FOTWW-COE stopover habitat evaluation team visited COE Lake Francis Case in North Dakota (9-11-2019). This lake is 107 miles long, at normal pool. Significantly the shoreline length is 540 miles with numerous areas where Whooping Cranes can stopover to rest, forage and roost for a day or so during their two 2,400 miles migrations each year. Like so many areas on most lakes, phragmites is a problem. The good news is that Aaron Gregor, Wildlife Biologist and James Lynde are using helicopters to spray herbicides on the invasive plants and, after the sprayed plants dry, they will be burned (Figure 5).

Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 6. Phragmites, bushes and small trees being control burned on Lake Francis Case which will improve habitat for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wildlife. (Aaron Gregor, Natural Resource Specialist provided photos.)

Continuing northward, the FOTWW-COE habitat evaluation team stopped at Lake Sharpe in South Dakota (9-12-2019). The reservoir length is 80 miles with a 200 miles shoreline. Here the team linked up with Brandon Bucon, COE Natural Resources Specialist. The COE wildlife work coupled with that of the two adjacent Indian Reservation has resulted in many improvements.

Huge migrations of waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds use the lake as an important stopover during migration. Numerous songbirds, upland game birds and birds of prey are abundant year around. The COE and Indians have natural resource management programs to improve habitat by planting hundreds of acres of food plots, numerous trees and establishing dense nesting cover.

Figure 7. A good place for Whoopers to forage and rest near the shore of Lake Sharp.

And another plus for this lake is that Whooping Cranes have been observed near by the Crow Creek Indians on their reservation. FOTWW Biologist McConnell had visited this area previously working with the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Indian Reservations. Here the team got to observe some results of previous effective herbicide spraying to kill cattail and phragmites.

The FOTWW-COE team linked up with Russ Somsen, Natural Resource Specialist during their fourth lake stop at Lake Oahe in South and North Dakota (9-13-2019). Somsen described Lake Oahe as a 370,000 acres reservoir at maximum pool. The reservoir length is 231 miles with a shoreline length of 2,250 miles. The lake connects South Dakota’s capital at Pierre with North Dakota’s capital at Bismarck. The scenic beauty attracts more than 1.5 million visitors every year including fishermen, hunters, sightseers and bird watchers. The Lake has an abundance of habitat in dry years when water levels are low and lake shores are wide.

Somsen informed the FOTWW-COE evaluation team that many thousands of waterfowl and numerous species of songbirds and other wild birds migrate to Lake Oahe and beyond every year. And many non-migrating birds including turkey, pheasant, grouse and prairie chicken are plentiful. Likewise, Lake Oahe supports some of the best fishing in the region. All forms of outdoor recreation are available.

Importantly, Lake Oahe with its vast shoreline provide critical habitat to many threatened and endangered species of wildlife and plants. The Corps works with other federal, state, local, tribal and private entities to protect these species. These agencies work under authority of the federal Endangered Species Act to protect and manage threatened and endangered species.

Fortunately, advised Russ Somsen, “Phragmites is no problem here. High water 10 years ago killed most of the salt cedar invasion. COE followed up and kill remaining salt cedar stands by spraying with herbicides.

Figure 8. Whooping Cranes such as these are visitors to the lake. The white birds are adult Whooping Cranes and the smaller birds are immature Whoopers. ( Photo by John Martell )
whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 9. This beautiful landscape looks like it was made for a “stopover area” for Whooping Cranes. But in addition to its beauty, the area provides necessary features to help the Whoopers rest and forage in a peaceful location. Flight glide path clear of obstructions are good for Whooping Cranes to fly in and land near roosting sites. There are few minor thick bushes and trees in or near landing site which helps to make for safe landings and departures. Once the Whoopers have landed they can forage for local foods, (insects, seeds, frogs and other small animals). Then when they are ready, the Whoopers can follow the gradual or gentle slopes into the lake where water is shallow – 2 to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. In addition, there is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Farm grain fields or pastures land is within one mile of stopover site for foraging.

The largest COE reservoir in the U.S.

Lake Sakakawea, the largest COE reservoir in the U.S. was the 5th stop for the FOTWW-COE “stopover habitat” team. They met with Lake Manager Aaron Gregor to learn about the lake and discuss any “stopover habitat” opportunities for Whooping Cranes. Later the team and Lake Manager Aaron visited a small portion of the lake shore.

Lake Sakakawea is 178 miles long, six miles wide at its widest point. It’s shoreline is 1,884 miles. The lake contains a third of the total water stored by the Missouri River mainstem reservoir system.

Wildlife is abundant on project habitats. Endangered species including the least tern and piping plover nest on the lake sandbars. Whoopers and peregrine falcons visit the lake occasionally. Bird watchers, hunters and fishermen use the project wildlife resources in large numbers.

The FOTWW-COE team and Lake Manager Gregor visited several sites on the lake to discuss Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” features. The sites visited were all quality habitats. Mr. Gregor estimated that there were 200 more areas around the lake shore similar to the ones we visited. FOTWW’s Wildlife Biologist McConnell, after visiting many more habitat sites and studying satellite photos believes that the Lake Manager’s estimate is conservative. In any case, McConnell declares “there are an abundance of excellent stopover habitats on Lake Sakakawea”(See fig 9).

whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 10. This Lake Sakakawea site has a wide shore for Whooping Cranes to land. And there is a small water pool inward that can provide additional roosting area in shallow water. There are no bushes/tall grass that would hide predators. Importantly, numerous grain fields are nearby where the Whoopers can forage.
whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 11. Some shallow water areas like this one on Lake Sakakawea are located on shores of most lakes. Such areas provide excellent stopover sites for Whooping Cranes. Extensive horizontal visibility allows predators to be readily observed. Occasionally, as the grass and bushes grow taller, prescribed fire may be needed to set back the growth.

The FOTWW-COE “stopover habitat” team made its sixth visit at Fort Peck Lake and Dam in Montana. With a volume of 18,700,000 acre feet when full, Fort Peck is the fifth largest artificial lake in the United States. It extends 134 miles through central Montana, and its twisting, inlet-studded shoreline has a total length of some 1,520 miles. The lake covers an area of 245,000 acres, making it the largest in Montana by surface area,

The reservoir is also a tourist attraction, with 27 designated recreational sites bordering its shores. Bordering nearly the entire reservoir is the 1,719-square-mile Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which has preserved much of the high prairie and hill country around the lake in a more or less natural state.

Together, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge encompass an area of 1.1 million acres including the 245,000 acres Fort Peck reservoir that span about 125 air miles along the Missouri River, from the Fort Peck Dam west to the boundary with the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Given the size and remoteness of Charles M. Russell, the area has changed very little from the historic voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition, through the era of outlaws and homesteaders, to the present time. Elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage and sharp-tailed grouse, and bald eagles make the Refuge home.

After discussing the natural resource objectives for Fort Peck Lake with staff members the FOTWW-COE team and staff members made a tour of the lake property by boat to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We traveled 64 miles on the lake that has a total length of some 1,520 miles to observe some of the shore area that would be suitable as “stopover habitats”.   In some areas westward of Fort Peck the banks are steep and shorelines are small and not suitable for Whoopers. Importantly, the number and high quality   “stopover habitats” that we observed was overwhelming. Due to time constraints we could make a reconnaissance of only part of the lake.

FOTWW’s McConnell explained that: “Based on observations by FOTWW and Fort Peck staff, we conservatively estimated that a minimum of one good “stopover habitat” per every two miles would be reasonable. That computes to 750 “stopover habitats” on Fort Peck Lake. The day we visited the lake was 6 feet above normal but numerous shorelines were good “stopover habitats”. During normal (lower) water level, more shore area is exposed and stopover habitats are much larger.

Figure 12. Fort Peck Lake. This is the crew that made the 65 miles boat trip on Fort Peck Lake to evaluate Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. The crew includes two Friends of the Wild Whoopers officials and five U.S. Army Corps of Engineers natural resource personnel. Names from left to right– Top row: Cindy Lott, Resource Specialist-; Patricia Gilbert, Natural Resource Specialist, Ft. Peck; Bottom row: Zachary Montreui, Omaha office; David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City; Chester McConnell, FOTWW Wildlife Biologist; Dorothy McConnell, FOTWW Field Assistant; Reece Nelson, Natural Resource Specialist, Omaha office.

One more stop before heading home

As the FOTWW-COE team headed back to their home offices, they made one more stop at Pipestem Lake in North Dakota. They met with Lake Manager James Dixon who is the only staff person. The team discussed the need for Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” and what could be done on Pipestem Lake to protect, maintain and develop stopover habitat.

Pipestem Lake is small with an 840 acres conservation pool. The length of the conservation pool is 5.5 miles and the shoreline is 14.5 miles. The FOTWW-COE team drove around the lake and observed many White Pelicans, egrets, killdeers and other birds. birds along the shore. The team estimated that 35% of the shore area is good Whooping Crane stopover habitat (Figure 13)..

The team recommended development of a policy on Off-Road-Vehicles; ATV use; invasive plants and an agricultural program.

whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 13. This peninsular near the dam is an excellent “stopover habitat” for migrating Whooping Cranes. Water along the shore is shallow (2” to 11” depth) and suitable for the cranes. Likewise the low growing green vegetation is a good foraging area for Whooping Cranes. Note the White Pelicans along the shore.

 

***** 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
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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 24, 2019

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
A newly arrived family group on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge Photo by Kevin Sims © 2017

It seemed like fall would never arrive after a long, hot summer, but cooler, shorter days have finally made an appearance with many species of migrants now frequenting the friendly skies!  Whooping Crane migration is in full swing and the first pair of our winter residents was reported by photographer John Humbert in the Seadrift area on October 9.  Regular U.S. migration hotspots like Quivira NWR in Kansas have already reported their first whooping cranes of the season as well. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look at Texas Whooper Watch:  Whooping Crane Look-Alikes.

It was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed South on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.

The Whooping Crane migration from WBNP to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to 50 days to complete. It is common for whooping cranes to spend a long period of time in Saskatchewan this time of year, “staging” for fall migration by foraging on abundant agricultural waste grains. Our partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service are actively monitoring whooping cranes in Saskatchewan now and have reported seeing several of our marked birds.  As of October 23, 14 marked birds were still north of the border in fall staging areas of Central Saskatchewan, one of them was in North Dakota, one was in South Dakota, one was in Kansas, one was in Oklahoma, and one was on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR.  There is a slight chance that some marked cranes are still on their breeding grounds in WBNP, but the lack of cellular towers make them untrackable until they begin to head south.

Report Texas Migration Sightings

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch.

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance

You might remember last fall and winter was a record wet period and we seem to be headed the other direction this year. This summer and fall was quite dry, with September, typically one of our wettest months of the year, only producing 2.94” of rain at Aransas NWR (2.94” of rain). Thus, much of the standing water that we saw across the Refuge last winter is now gone and freshwater wetlands are shrinking somewhat. Since June, we have recorded 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regards to what the future holds.

Habitat Management at Aransas:

We were able to burn a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes.  We also burned an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units.  By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access. Summer burns are often provide more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, thus are an important tool for us at Aransas NWR.

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Whooping Crane Fall Migration – 2019

Fall Migration Underway

whooping crane fall migration
Whooping cranes in Saskatchewan during fall migration. Photo by Beryl Peake – 2018

Fall migration of the only natural wild population of whooping cranes is underway. The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take as many as 50 days to complete. The flock is expected to migrate through Nebraska, North Dakota and other states along the Central Flyway over the next several weeks. The Wildlife Fish and Game and Parks agencies along the flyway encourage the public to report any whooping crane sightings.

If you should observe a whooping crane as they migrate along the Central Flyway, please report them to the proper agencies. We have compiled a list of agencies and contact information below. If you need help with identification, please click on our Whooper Identification page.

Montana reports

Allison Begley
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
1420 East Sixth Avenue
Helena, MT  59620
abegley@mt.gov
(406) 444-3370

Jim Hansen
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
2300 Lake Elmo Drive
Billings, MT  59105
jihansen@mt.gov
(406) 247-2957

North Dakota

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701-848-2466)
Audubon, (701-442-5474)
National wildlife refuges
North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701-328-6300) or to local game wardens

South Dakota

Eileen Dowd Stukel; eileen.dowdstukel@state.sd.us; (605-773-4229)
Casey Heimerl; (605-773-4345)
Natalie Gates; Natalie_Gates@fws.gov; (605-224-8793), ext. 227
Jay Peterson; Jay_Peterson@fws.gov; (605-885-6320), ext. 213

Nebraska

Nebraska Game and Parks (402-471-0641)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (308-379-5562)
The Crane Trust’s Whooper Watch hotline (888-399-2824)
Emails may be submitted to joel.jorgensen@nebraska.gov

Kansas

Jason Wagner
jason.wagner@ks.gov
(620-793-3066)

Ed Miller
ed.miller@ks.gov
(620-331-6820)

Whooping Crane sightings at or near Quivira NWR should be reported to:
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
620-486-2393
They can also be reported to this email:  quivira@fws.gov

Oklahoma

Sightings can be logged online here

Matt Fullerton
Endangered Species Biologist
(580-571-5820)

Mark Howery
Wildlife Diversity Biologist
(405-990-7259)

Texas

Texas Whooper Watch also has a project in I-Naturalist that is now fully functional. You can find it here. You can report sightings directly in I-Naturalist via your Smart Phone. This allows you to easily provide photo verification and your location.

If you are not a smart phone app user, you can still report via email: whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512-389-999). Please note that our primary interest is in reports from outside the core wintering range.

Do not disturb and why reporting is important

Should you see a whooping crane, please do not get close or disturb it. Keep your distance and make a note of date, time, location, and what the whooping crane is doing. If the whooping crane is wearing bands or a transmitter, please note the color(s) and what leg(s) the bands are on.

whooping crane fall migration
Whooping cranes in Saskatchewan during their fall migration. Photo by Kim and Val Mann – 2018

You may wonder why the wild life agencies are asking for these sightings to be reported. The reports are very helpful in gathering data and information on when and where the whooping cranes stopover, what type of habitat they are choosing, and how many there are.
With just over 500 wild whooping cranes migrating along the Central Flyway, odds are low of seeing a wild whooping crane. However, FOTWW hopes that someone reading this article will be one of the lucky few and if you are, please report your sighting so that these agencies and other conservation groups, including FOTWW can continue helping these magnificent 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.

fall migration
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Whooping Crane Survey Results: Winter 2018–2019

504 Wild Whooping Cranes Estimated at ANWR this past winter

 

Whooping Crane Population
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kevin Sims®

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have completed analysis of last winter’s aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population. “Preliminary data analysis indicated 504 whooping cranes, including 13 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas.

This is comparable with the prior winter’s estimate of 505 whooping cranes, indicating the population remained stable but did not experience the growth this year that it has the past several years. An additional 12 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 2nd year in a row that the population has topped the 500 mark. The lack of population growth last winter likely resulted from a low chick production season on the breeding grounds of northern Canada during the spring-summer of 2018.”

 

Delay in Whooping Crane survey

During winter 2018–2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued to use a Quest Kodiak aircraft and surveys were conducted in mid-February. The primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres; Figure 1) was surveyed multiple times during February 9–14, 2019. San Jose Island, West Marsh, Lamar-Tatton, Matagorda Island Central, and Welder Flats-Dewberry were surveyed 4 times and Blackjack was surveyed 5 times. Due to logistical constrains and poor weather conditions, the secondary survey areas (approximately 169,300 acres; Figure 1) were not surveyed this winter. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the survey later than planned which likely resulted in underestimates of recruitment due to late season changes in plumage coloration.

No growth this year for Whooping Crane Population

The long-term growth rate in the whooping crane population has averaged 4.5% (n = 95; 95% CI = 1.77– 6.98%). The population remained stable from winter 2017–2018 to winter 2018–2019  In summer 2018, the Canadian Wildlife Service reported 24 whooping crane chicks were fledged at Wood-Buffalo Nation Park which is lower than normal. Recruitment was low resulting in no population growth.

You can see the full report at the following link:
https://ecos.fws.gov/ServCat/DownloadFile/166739

***** 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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