Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
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.
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.
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.
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
1420 East Sixth Avenue
Helena, MT 59620
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
2300 Lake Elmo Drive
Billings, MT 59105
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701-848-2466)
National wildlife refuges
North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701-328-6300) or to local game wardens
Endangered Species Biologist
Wildlife Diversity Biologist
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: firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Spring is here and a few Whooping Cranes from the wild flock have arrived on the nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP).
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.