Some good things come in small packages

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Good things come in small packages

Sometimes good things come in small packages. For example Hords Creek Lake in mid-west Texas is on my mind. Friends of the Wild Whoopers visited this Corps of Engineers (COE) lake recently and we were totally surprised. The purpose for our visit was to evaluate existing and potential “stopover habitat” for wild Whooping Cranes. To our pleasant surprise, we visited a fantastic place. During our 876 mile road trip back to our home office we discussed our habitat survey of all four lakes we visited (Jim Chapman, Ray Roberts, Lewisville and Hords Creek).
During the past two years FOTWW has visited 27 COE Lakes in Texas and all have good programs that focus on natural environmental resources. While all COE lakes we have visited are impressive places, some including Hords Creek Lake are special.

Dorothy McConnell, FOTWW’s Field Assistant summed up our discussion by stating: “Hords Creek Lake is small but has beautiful and bountiful habitat for any visiting wild Whooping Cranes.” The lake’s conservation pool is only 510 acres – small when compared with most COE lakes. But size is only a part of what one must take into account when evaluating lakes for the Whoopers. When considering all the other features including fishing, bird watching, swimming and camping you have a lavish set of resource at Hords Creek Lake.

Impressive diversity

The diversity of habitats at Hords Creek is impressive from beaver pond wetlands, to abundant shore area shallows and the western section shallow area. The following figures will give readers a better perspective of Hords Creek Lake.

Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 1. The wetland in this photo was created by beavers building a dam in a stream below Hords Creek Lake. Whooping Cranes often “stopover” in these wetland types to rest forage and roost.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 2. The pond in this photo aids in supplying clear water to the beaver wetland down stream. Also the proposed cleared area will provide a good foraging area for the cranes.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 3. Located between the two arrows is a wetland formed in a shallow inlet. Total size is one acre with much foraging foods for Whooping Cranes. Several similar wetlands are located around the lake shore.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 4. This photo shows a typical shore area of Hords Creek Lake. Whooping Cranes can walk down the gradual incline shore area into the shallow water where they prefer to roost. Note the narrow stand of grass and aquatic weeds along the shore that provides habitat for frogs, salamanders and various aquatic insects that Whoopers can feed on. The short bushes in the shallow water may provide some protection for the 5 foot tall Whoopers who can reach over the bushes and attack any predators.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 5. This beautiful shore area is typical along much of the shore. Such wetland areas all contribute to the food supply and roosting sites for wild Whooping Cranes. Much of the shore area is mowed often to maintain the “park like” habitat. It also serves any Whooping Cranes that may visit the lake.

***** 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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Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW) fundraiser

Friends of the Wild Whoopers
Whooping cranes enjoying the wild.

One of our newer and very enthusiastic supporters, Ali Forest-Walker has decided to host a Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW) fundraiser on her Facebook page in hopes of raising money for FOTWW and the wild whooping cranes.  She took FOTWW’s president, Chester McConnell’s words to heart when he said “If you, or anyone would volunteer as a fundraiser, we would love to have you on board.” How wonderful of her to do this for us. She asked us permission to conduct a fundraiser and we immediately said “yes”, gave her our blessing, and wished her lots of success. Perhaps a few others will follow her lead too.

If you want to donate to Ali’s fundraiser and helping us continue our work, here is the link. She is hoping to raise $500 USD.  https://www.facebook.com/donate/2092425700866081/

If hosting a Facebook fundraiser is not for you, perhaps you would donate to Ali’s fundraiser or share the link on your Facebook, Twitter, or other social media page for all of your social media friends to see. We know she would be happy and appreciative. We would be too!

We are more than happy to have anyone host a fundraiser for us. As we posted earlier, “The unfortunate situation is that FOTWW is a very small group doing a huge job. We don’t have corporate funding or grants and each official personally pays for their own expenses including, website upkeep and hosting, travel (motels, food and car/airline expense).  We love what we are doing but sincerely need funding. If you, or anyone would volunteer as a Fundraiser, we would love to have you on board.”
 
To Ali Forest-Walker, we can’t thank you enough for your efforts and wish great success with your FOTWW fundraiser.
 
To all who donate to her FOTWW fundraiser, we say THANK YOU!
 

***** 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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“Stopover Habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes and military bases

May 12, 2019

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are receiving significant awareness and interest about their habitat needs in Texas and other states. It’s happening on Corps of Engineer (COE) lakes and military bases throughout Texas. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) have recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional Corps lakes. This brings the total assessments in Texas to fifteen lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

FOTWW’s focus on “stopover habitat”.

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. During past 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.

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. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

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. Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats.”

Habitat Importance

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.

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.

McConnell explained that he uses 85 percent of his working time traveling to meet with government land managers and Indian tribe natural resource managers. He instructs them on needs of endangered Whooping Cranes and importantly, he also evaluates their wetland habitats and prepare management plans to guide them to successfully manage their “stopover habitats”.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Proctor Lake, Stillhouse Hollow Lake, Belton and Lake Georgetown recently to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our visit and is a major supporter of FOTWW efforts. Park Ranger Todd Spivey led us on an in-depth tour of Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lake that allowed us to evaluate areas that are difficult to 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.

Figure 1: A three person team traveled by boat to numerous potential “stopover habitats” in Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lakes that wild Whooping Cranes could use during their two annual migrations. The team was evaluating the usefulness of the various locations as potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Many good sites were observed that can be easily developed and managed. (Identification from left to right: Chester McConnell, President, Friends of the Wild Whoopers; Todd Spivey, USACE Park Ranger, Stillhouse Hollow Lake; and Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.

stopover habitat
Figure 2. This is an excellent location for a Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” onStillhouse Lake, TX. Glide paths (arrows) for Whooping Cranes landing area is clear of obstructions and provides a gradual slope into the shallow water. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The area opening in the bushes from the field to water is about 60 feet wide and provides a satisfactory place for Whooping Cranes to move to the water to roost without obstructions. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging

stopover habitat
Figure 3. This photo shows a potentially exceptional “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Stillhouse Lake, TX. The glide path for Whooping Cranes landing is clear of obstructions. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The “orange block” shows location of area 50 feet long that needs all bushes cleared so Whooping Cranes can move from the field to water without fear of hiding predators. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging.

stopover habitat
Figure 4. This Belton Lake location is one of the better sites that we observed to serve as a potential “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Flight glide paths are clear from all directions. The few obstructions at the landing site can be easily removed by applying a chemical brush killer. There are few thick stands of bushes or trees in or near landing site and these can be remove relatively easy. FOTWW believes a chemical brush killer that kills bushes above ground, the roots underground and stumps is the preferred method to use. Clipping bushes above ground or pulling them up will leave many of the roots in place and they will soon sprout back.  ~ The gradual or gentle slopes into lakes where water is shallow is necessary for Whooping Crane roosting sites. This is the condition we observed here. The birds select lakes/ponds/wetlands with some shallow areas 2 inches to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. The cranes like extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Roost sites also need to be 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines and loud noises. If food is not available, agricultural grain fields or pasture land should be within one mile of stopover site for foraging.

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