“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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Spring and Whooping Cranes arrive at Wood Buffalo NP

by Pam Bates

Spring is here and a few Whooping Cranes from the wild flock have arrived on the nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP).

Whooping Cranes arrive at Wood Buffalo
Photo by Klaus Nigge. Click to view at full size.

According to Rhona Kindopp, Manager of Resource Conservation, Parks Canada. “they have been hearing and observing a number of spring arrivals in the last week or two and one of their staff members reported seeing (and hearing) 4 whoopers flying as she walked home from the office!”

Kindopp states that they are getting signals from 12 cranes marked with transmitters, and those as of Tuesday morning were coming from North and South Dakota, Kansas and Texas, and central Saskatchewan. So the flock is still spread out along the Central Flyway and heading to WBNP.

Nesting Ground conditions.

Numbers regarding whether precipitation was significantly lower than usual this year aren’t available at this time but Kindopp says that the “snow disappeared very quickly this spring. March is usually our heaviest snow month, but the snow was quickly disappearing by mid-March this year.”

Friends of the Wild Whoopers will publish updates of the nesting ground conditions and any ongoing Whooping Crane chick reproduction and related activities when it is available.

Whooping Cranes nesting information

Whooping cranes usually arrive at WBNP during late April and May after migrating 2,500 miles from Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast. Each nesting pair locates 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 of breeding pairs vary in size but average about 1,500 acres. Whooping Cranes guard their territories and nesting neighbors normally locate their nest at least one-half mile away. Vegetation from the local area is normally used for nest construction and they construct their nests in shallow water.

Eggs are usually laid in late April to mid-May. Normally two eggs are laid but occasionally only one and rarely three have been observed in nests. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid. Incubation occurs for about 30 days. Because incubation starts when the first egg is laid, the first chick hatched is a day or two older than the second hatched. This difference in age is substantial 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.

Report any sightings

With a few cranes already on the nesting grounds, the majority of the flock is still migrating north. Parks Canada is requesting if you see any whooping cranes, they would love to hear from you! Contact the Park Office at 867-872-7960.

***** 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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2019 Whooping Crane Spring Migration Underway

by Pam Bates

Spring Migration Underway

Some of the birds in the world’s only remaining wild population of Whooping Cranes have begun their annual migration back to their nesting grounds in northern Canada. Staff and visitors at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge counted 29 of the birds on Monday. The others will follow soon. They are repeating an event that has been going on for thousands of years. Following good conditions during the winter season on their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge winter grounds, the Whoopers appear to be in healthy condition. So, as the remaining Whoopers join the early birds and depart on their 2,500 mile migration to Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting grounds there is hope for a successful reproduction and nesting season.

Traveling in small groups the Whoopers are expected to begin arriving at the Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds during late April and May.

Migration
                                                          Whooping Cranes in Flight. Photo by Charles Hardin.

Report your observations

Friends of the Wild Whoopers ask the public to report any Whooping Cranes they see along rivers, wetlands and fields. Report your observations to the wildlife agency in your state.

Nebraska reports

If you see a whooping crane in Nebraska, please report your whooping crane sighting to Nebraska Game and Parks (402-471-0641), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (308-379-5562), or The Crane Trust’s Whooper Watch hotline (888-399-2824). Emails may be submitted to joel.jorgensen@nebraska.gov.

North Dakota reports

If you see a whooping crane in North Dakota, please report your whooping crane sighting 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.

Oklahoma reports

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is asking for your help in logging the migration path of the cranes. Sightings can be logged online here or by calling Endangered species biologist Matt Fullerton at 580-571-5820 or wildlife diversity biologist Mark Howery at 405-990-7259.

Texas report

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-TXWW (8999). Please note that our primary interest is in reports from outside the core wintering range.

Give them their space and importance of reporting

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.

You may wonder why the wildlife 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.

migration
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Indian Reservations in the Dakotas have abundant Whooping Crane “stopover habitat”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Indian reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota are providing huge amounts of “stopover habitat” for migrating wild whooping cranes. As Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) wildlife biologist, I visited six of the reservations to evaluate numerous “stopover habitats” and to provide management recommendations”.

Indian reservations eager for FOTWW’s visit

I contacted the Great Plains Region Indian Headquarters to explain FOTWW’s whooping crane stopover habitat project. Regional Headquarters endorsed our efforts and furnished contact information for natural resource personnel on individual reservations. Natural resource personnel were then contacted on each reservation and FOTWW’s project explained to them. Each reservation wanted to be part of the project and invited FOTWW to visit them.

The reservations FOTWW visited collectively have approximately 2.6 million hectares of land. There are approximately 1,000 permitted range units and 6,000 farm/pasture leases on 7 reservations. The permitted areas and farm/pasture leases are managed under reservation guidelines which are largely useful to wildlife. The headquarters reservation biologist (each reservation has a biologist) advised that there are over 1,700 potential stopover ponds/wetlands on the reservations within the whooping crane migration corridor.

Goals for visitation

I made visits to each reservation: (1) to provide training for personnel about whooping crane stopover habitat needs, (2) to evaluate the habitats and (3) to make habitat management recommendations. Based on FOTWW field evaluations and accepted whooping crane habitat features, reservation natural resource personnel estimated that approximately 75% of the 1,700 ponds/wetlands could provide good stopover habitat, although some may require management criteria.

FOTWW was very impressed with whooping crane stopover habitats and their management on all reservation sited that we visited. We were also pleased with the cooperative attitude of all personnel that we met with.

Potential benefits of livestock

Finally, during the field trips, FOTWW detected an activity of livestock that is potentially beneficial to whooping cranes. As noted above, whooping cranes do not use wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore, where predators may be lurking. Around some ponds, we observed that livestock had grazed and trampled the vegetation when reaching a shallow area where they can safely enter the pond’s edge to obtain drinking water (Fig. 4). This resulted in unobstructed shore areas that would allow whooping cranes to use these ponds as stopover sites. Whooping cranes favor these same types of shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter ponds to roost. We observed this phenomenon of vegetation trampling by livestock on numerous wetlands, especially in North and South Dakota. Thus, livestock pond water resources could incidentally provide additional suitable stopover habitat for whooping cranes.

Evaluation progress

FOTWW has now completed whooping crane stopover habitat evaluations on all suitable military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor. Management recommendation reports have been provided to all areas visited.

Currently, we are evaluating Corps of Engineer Lakes within the migration corridor to locate, protect and manage stopover habitats for the only remaining wild Whooping Crane population on Earth. This work is being accomplished under a Cooperative Agreement with the Corps.

Indian reservations
Figure 1. Map showing Indian Reservations in North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Indian reservations
Figure 2. Cheyenne River Indian Reservation Sioux Tribe, S.D. Pond / wetland useful as a stopover habitat for by Whooping Cranes. Young men in photo are in a tribal work-study project. FOTWW taught them about the features that make ponds/wetlands to be good stopover habitats. They learned rapidly and will be the future managers of the natural resources on the reservation.

Indian reservations
Figure 3. Spirit Lake Reservation, (Fort Totten) N.D. This reservation has many good stopover habitats. Flight glide path is clear of obstructions for Whooping Cranes to land near roosting sites. There is no tall grass or woody vegetation around most of this lake. Shore area is shallow with areas 5 to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. Sloped are gradual or gentle into lakes / ponds where water is shallow. Little or no emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at roost areas. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Lake is 300 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Foraging fields with grain crops and insects within one mile of stopover area.

Indian reservations
Figure 4. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) and cattail invasion (B) has been restricted due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide suitable roosting sites for whooping 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.

 

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