Thirty-two whooping cranes fledged on Wood Buffalo

Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) officials reported today that 32 whooping crane chicks were observed during this year’s Whooping Crane Fledging Survey. Wood Buffalo personnel took to the skies during August 9-12, 2014 and completed their annual survey.  During the 4 days the team counted 32 fledged young whooping cranes.

WBNP officials reported that a total of 202 whoopers were counted, including the fledgling and nesting pairs.  Fledglings are birds that have reached an age where they can fly. The 32 fledglings were found in 30 family groups: 28 families with one chick and two families with two chicks. In addition to the family groups, the surveyors observed 6 groups of three whooping cranes, 43 groups of two, and 6 individual cranes.

Data from the survey are used to document the breeding success of the whooping crane population. WBNP’s preliminary analysis shows that the number of young fledged per nest is 0.39, which is lower than the 20-year average of 0.48, but is similar to last year’s rate, and within the normal range of variation. During the 2013 survey, 28 chicks were produced from 74 nests for a breeding success rate of .38 fledged young per nest. There were no nests with two fledglings last year.

Knowing annual breeding success allows Parks Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation partners to effectively manage issues related to the whooping cranes recovery. By counting the number of fledgling chicks, officials gain important insights into the health of the world’s last remaining natural nesting flock of whoopers which contributes greatly to the ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

A record number of 164 whooping cranes had been counted incubating their eggs in 82 nests during the annual survey in June 2014.  This number surpasses a previous record of 76 nests in spring 2011.  These endangered birds all nest in and around WBNP, Canada. The whooper fledgling count is one of two annual surveys that are part of the world-class restoration plan that has made the whooping crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. The mission of the survey was to determine how many chicks had hatched and survived to become fledglings since the nest counts were made in June.

Fledglings whooping cranes must be strong fliers so they can fairly soon complete their 2,500 mile migration with their parents to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, their winter home on the Texas coast. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, during March and April 2014 an estimated 300 whooping cranes migrated to Canada from their winter habitat on Aransas Refuge. The birds arrived on Wood Buffalo during April 2014 and began their nesting activities soon thereafter. The nesting whoopers cannot waste time because they must build their nest, lay and incubate their eggs and raise their young within 5 or 6 months. The juveniles must grow fast to be prepared for the 2,500 mile migration back to Aransas Refuge by November. Their Wood Buffalo nesting grounds freeze over early.

Figure 2. Scanning the wetlands below for whooping cranes. Photo of Sharon Irwin, Resource Management Officers at WBNP. (Sharon was the Survey Lead/Data Recorder for the Survey.) Photo by Jane Peterson / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park
Figure 2. Scanning the wetlands below for whooping cranes. Photo of Sharon Irwin, Resource Management Officers at WBNP. (Sharon was the Survey Lead/Data Recorder for the Survey.) Photo by Jane Peterson / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park

WBNP Staff spent 4 days flying over the Whooping Crane Nesting Area in an attempt to locate the whoopers (Figure 2). Nesting pairs normally use the same territory each year to build their nest and raise their chicks.  In late-May, nesting locations are collected during the annual Nest Survey.  Surveyors use a laptop computer running mobile mapping software to record the nest locations. Knowing where the cranes nest helps make locating the adults and juveniles a bit more successful. Both the Nest Survey and the Fledging Survey are part of the world-class restoration  plan that has made the whooping crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. By counting the number of fledging chicks, Parks Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others gain important insights into the health of  the world’s last remaining natural nesting flock that contribute greatly to our ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

Figure 3. The Wood Buffalo nesting area used by whooping cranes. Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park
Figure 3. The Wood Buffalo nesting area used by whooping cranes. Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park

Adult cranes (Figure 4) are easier to spot because of their white plumage. Juveniles with their brown-orange plumage are more difficult to locate especially in colorful vegetation. Those involved in the aerial surveys must be careful observers and stay alert to spot all the nesting whooping cranes and their chicks in the vast wetlands of Wood Buffalo National Park.

Two adult whooping cranes spotted during aerial survey on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo by John McKinnon
Figure 4. Two adult whooping cranes spotted during aerial survey on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park

 The two mature whooping cranes in figure 4 are easier for experienced biologists to spot from the aircraft due to their white plumage. In contrast, the juvenile whooper in figure 5 is more difficult to spot from the air plane due to the color of vegetation and the bottom of the pond.

Figure 5. Two adults and one juvenile whooping crane spotted during aerial survey on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park.
Figure 5. Two adults and one juvenile whooping crane spotted during aerial survey on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park.

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of
wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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The Aransas Project ask for Review of Whooping Crane Case

The case is back in court concerning freshwater needs by whooping cranes on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  The Aransas Project (TAP) responded to the recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s three judge panel decision concerning freshwater needs of whooping cranes on July 28, 2014. TAP is asking the Fifth Circuit for a review of their decision with all of the Fifth Circuit judges participating (view the full petition).

The federally protected whooping crane faces extinction. There were only 304 of the birds when they were counted on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge during the past winter. This last wild flock of whoopers on earth migrates 5,000 miles between Texas and Canada every year.

Map of Guadalupe River and San Antonio River watershed. These rivers carry fresh water flows into bays and estuaries near Aransas Refuge. Map by ICF

The crane’s only winter refuge is on the Texas coast where they have frequently suffered high mortality due to low freshwater inflows. Freshwater flows from the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers into the San Antonio Bay estuary within the Aransas Refuge complex.

Legal sources advise that “The Appeals panel seemingly exceeded its authority by disregarding the fact finding done by the trial judge, and substituted its own fact finding, rather than returning the case to the district court with direction to apply the facts to what the panel believes is the correct legal standard. This seeming judicial activism in the recent Appeals decision may be enough for the rest of the Fifth Circuit Court judges to reconsider the case with all judges participating.”

TAP’s original legal action was initiated on March 10, 2010. TAP filed a lawsuit against several officials of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for illegal harm and harassment of whooping cranes at, and adjacent to, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The case went to trial before the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in December 2011.

TAP contended that the “TCEQ allowed too much water to be removed from the Guadalupe andSan Antonio Rivers, such that the bay salinity was changed beyond what drought would cause, resulting in reduced fresh drinking water and food supply that ultimately caused the death of at least 23 whooping cranes during the winter of 2008 – 2009.” TAP  used court evidence to described how freshwater inflows are tied to the fate of whooping cranes and all who depend on the bays for their livelihoods.

Janis Graham Jack, Senior United States District Judge heard the case and ruled on March 11, 2013 that the TCEQ, have violated section 9 of the ESA and were not using its powers available to protect the endangered whooping cranes. TCEQ officials were enjoined from approving or granting new water permits affecting the Guadalupe or San Antonio Rivers until the State of Texas provides reasonable assurances to the Court that such permits will not take whooping cranes in violation of the ESA.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, on June 30, 2014 in a narrowly-tailored decision (opinion), held that the federal district judge misapplied certain legal theories when it found that the TCEQ was liable for the deaths of 23 endangered and federally-protected whooping cranes in 2008-2009. The Fifth Circuit concluded that, “Because the deaths of the whooping cranes are too remote from TCEQ’s permitting withdrawal of water from the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers, the state defendants cannot be held liable for a take or for causing a take under the ESA. Even if the state defendants should be held liable, the injunction was an abuse of discretion. The district court’s judgment is REVERSED.”

Whooping cranes need fresh water to create healthy habitat on Aransas NWR.
Whooping cranes need fresh water to create healthy habitat on Aransas NWR.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) applauds TAPS decision to responded to the recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s three judge panel decision by asking that there be review of their decision with all of the Fifth Circuit judges participating. The courts and, or Texas public officials need to make an intelligent decision concerning adequate fresh waters flowing into the bays and estuaries associated with the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The fresh water is necessary for the continued survival of endangered whooping cranes and hundreds of other fish and wildlife species using the area.

Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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The Crane Track: Whooping Crane Migration Story

School is out for the summer and it’s time to get kids to read books. Friends of the Wild Whoopers recommends “The Crane Track: Whooping Cranes’ Migration … A Tale of Survival” by Gene Steffen.

The Crane Track Whooping Cranes' Migration...book cover
The Crane Track…book cover

The Crane Track uses factual information to build an interesting story. It’s about a two adult whooping cranes and their young chick, Leki. It describes some scary events during their time in the Wood Buffalo nesting area. And then it follows them while they make a 2,400 migration from the Northwest Territories in Canada to Texas.

Leki, the young whooping crane has no idea that a spectacular journey is about to begin. He lives with his parents, Toluki and Karla, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Leki has had many adventures there, like the day he ran across wild wolves! Still, his biggest adventure is yet to come as his parents prepare for their annual October migration.

Every year, the whooping cranes travel south to warmer climates for the winter. Toluki and Karla plan to take young Leki 2,400 miles, all the way from their home in Canada to a winter resting place near the Gulf of Mexico. The path they take is called “the crane track,” and it is a journey filled with wild weather and hungry hunters.

Whooping cranes are graceful creatures with white feathers and up to an eight-foot wingspan. Once almost extinct, there are now 304 wild whooping cranes in the population that migrates from Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. All whoopers in this population travel the same path as Leki and his parents. Nature is a carefully balanced, beautiful machine. It’s up to us to protect the path of the cranes’ migratory journey. So is little Leki up for the trip?

Whooping cranes on Texas coast where sea level rise may alter habitat conditions.
Whooping cranes on Texas coast where sea level rise may alter habitat conditions.

The book follows the Track the cranes make twice each year and was featured on a National Geographic special, Flight of the Whooping Crane. The author, Gene Steffen, was the pilot during the making of that film. This is a great story to teach children about geography, endangered species, migration and the general wonder of our natural environment.

One source for the book is Amazon.com

 

  

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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Whooping Crane Stopover Study To Aid Species Recovery

In March, Friends of the Wild Whoopers reported on the need to learn more about resting/feeding sites along the whooping crane migratory route. (See Whooping Crane Tracking Study) In order to learn more about the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population needs during migration, the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began banding and tracking them in 2009. Banding of the whooping cranes has been completed and preliminary findings are currently being compiled. Many key areas have already been identified where the whooping cranes stop over during their 2,500 mile migration. Other useful insights “into this here-to-fore little-know world of whooping crane stopover habitat” are being studied.”

In their latest Newsletter, the Crane Trust offers us some more insight and details about the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership’s study.

 

Article from Crane Trust Spring 2014 Newsletter

Whooping cranes require suitable stopover sites to complete their spring/fall migration. Without them, the 5,000-mile journey would not be possible. Photo by John Conklin, Canadian Wildlife Service.

Suitable habitat for whooping cranes to stop, rest and feed during their spring/fall migration is critical for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population to complete its 2,500-mile journey each way. These stopover sites are the focus of a comprehensive ground-based study to improve our understanding of the specific habitats and locations selected by whooping cranes during their migration—and are vital for the species recovery. Above Photo: Whooping cranes require suitable stopover sites to complete their spring/fall migration. Without them, the 5,000-mile journey would not be possible. Photo by John Conklin, Canadian Wildlife Service. 

Measuring

Initiated in 2012 by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and researchers from the Crane Trust and the US Geological Survey, the ground-based study was in full swing for the 2014 spring migration. To date, more than 250 stopover sites have been visited and characterized by researchers between northern Texas and North Dakota. The result to date is the most exhaustive aggregation of data ever collected on whooping crane stopover sites and their utilization by migrating cranes.  Above Photo: Maximum depth was one of over a dozen water-related measurements taken at sites where water was present. Distance to water, bank slope, land cover of nearest shoreline, and wetland classification were among the others.

Mapping

Individual stopover sites were located using GPS tracking data from the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership’s telemetry study and were visited by one of three regional research teams. Each team spent roughly one day in the field for every two days in the office contacting landowners and collecting/inputting time-sensitive measurements. Key measurements and their application included 360° on-location photography, GIS mapping of habitat types and land covers, food types and availability, land cover and management practices, endangering and visually obstructive features, water characteristics (if present), and other variables.  Above Photo: The Crane Trust’s Ryan Joe creates GIS map of stopover site using field data collected this spring. The finished product will depict key features and habitats, providing a valuable reference for visual analysis.

Panorama

The precise arrival and departure times of the whooping crane(s) and their movements within each stopover site area were also recorded. Sites were visited after whooping cranes had departed, so as to not disturb migrating birds and to record observations and measurements as close to the bird’s departure as possible.  Above Photo: Habitat variations and similarities were observed throughout the migration corridor. The above photo was indicative of a stopover site in the Nebraska-central region.  

While complete study results aren’t expected until 2015, preliminary findings are already providing useful insights into this here-to-fore little-known world of whooping crane stopover habitat. When complete, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, the Crane Trust and other conservation organizations/agencies will be able to use this comprehensive data to better inform (and improve) habitat management practices and conservation strategies to aid the species recovery.

                    ***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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