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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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
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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Future Whooping Crane Island Habitat on Canton Lake, Oklahoma

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats as time goes by. During their 2,500 mile migration from their Canadian nesting area to their Texas wintering habitat they must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Dwindling wetlands

Private lands have traditionally provided most of the “stopover habitats” but many of these properties are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming. So, what can we do to help? Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contends that lands and waters on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) lakes, military base wetlands and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Many of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife…

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 21 USACE lakes within the wild Whooping Crane migration corridor. Some of these properties currently have suitable stopover wetland habitats while other areas could be enhanced with minor work.

USACE lakes within the 6 state migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Canton Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable.

Canton Lake, Oklahoma

Canton Lake contains 7,910 acres of surface water and 14,861 acres of public hunting land that is managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). This area is open year round, except for the migratory bird refuge which is closed annually from 15 October to 15 February. Canton Lake’s purpose is to provide flood risk management, water supply, fish and wildlife conservation and recreation.  Since its impoundment more than 60 years ago, it has been enjoyed by millions of people. The lake offers extensive opportunity for outdoor recreation activities.

FOTWW is aware that Canton Lake, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. Both USACE and ODWC personnel have observed Whooping Cranes on the lake several times.

As FOTWW Wildlife Biologist, I visited Canton Lake on October 10, 2018 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE made arrangements for our trip. George Mayfield, Assistant Lake Manager and Chase Kokojan, ODWC participated in the lake stopover habitat evaluation. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Canton Lake we made a tour of the lake property by vehicle to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We identified several potential stopover habitat areas one of which is described below.

Canton Lake
Figure 1. Satellite photo of island at western end of Canton Lake. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. Additional treatments may be necessary to maintain the vegetation at a height height of 2 feet or less. Whooping Cranes require areas where they can readily observe predators such as coyotes and bobcats.

 

Canton Lake
Figure 2. This photo displays the land base at the boat ramp, the cattail and phragmites plants and the island (same as in Fig. 1) in the background. If managed properly the island and shore area can become excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wild creatures. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. A second treatment may be necessary to get the areas described in good condition.

DESCIPTION OF POTENTIAL “STOPOVER HABITATS”:

The photos (Figs.1 and 2 are potential “stopover habitats” for endangered Whooping Cranes to rest and roost. The island is located in an isolated location and not near frequently travel roads or power lines. The size and configuration of the wetland area varies with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were approximately 1.5 feet higher than “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas and island are essentially clear of bushes and trees. Horizontal visibility from the island and shore roost sites, if properly managed, would allow Whooping Cranes to detect any predators that may be in the area. The slope of the shore and lake edge is gradual and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches would be available during “normal” lake water levels. There is little emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at these roost sites. The locations are 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Hundreds of acres of foraging areas are located on ODWC wildlife food plots and in nearby agriculture fields. In addition there are wild foods in adjacent managed grasslands and wetlands that provide an abundance of insects, wild seeds and other wild food.

 

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

***** 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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