Whooping cranes are passing through Nebraska for their annual migration, and wildlife officials are helping them by releasing more water into the Platte River at Grand Island.
The release will provide and maintain adequate roosting and feeding habitat for whooping cranes on the Platte River, and is expected to continue through early to mid-November when the whooping cranes leave the region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release water from their Environmental Account beginning on Oct. 19. The cranes use the Platte River in Nebraska as a stopover site during their migration in the Central Flyway south to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas for the winter.
Washington (July 10, 2018) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced today the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Friends of the Wild Whoopers to assist in the recovery of endangered whooping cranes.
Per the MOU, USACE and Friends of the Wild Whoopers will jointly assess whooping crane migration stopover habitat at USACE water resources development projects. The assessments will be used by USACE to develop work plans that maintain and improve existing habitat and create additional habitat for this critically endangered bird as part of USACE Environmental Stewardship Program.
The whooping crane is one of the most endangered bird species in the world and is commonly seen as America’s symbol of conservation. Standing 5 feet tall with a wing span of 7 feet, it is the largest bird in North America.
Once fairly common, the species was reduced to just 16 birds by 1943. Market hunting and indiscriminate shooting along with habitat loss led to the decline of the species. Conservation efforts in the United States and Canada have seen the population increase to an estimated 431 birds in 2017.
This partnership is consistent with USACE’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, which states that federal agencies may use their existing authorities to assist in the recovery of listed species.
A quick first glance might leave you to think that this white crane is a whooping crane. However, it is not a whooping crane but a sandhill crane with an abnormality called leucism. Leucism is an abnormal condition of reduced pigmentation affecting various animals (such as birds, mammals, and reptiles) that is marked by overall pale color or patches of reduced coloring and is caused by a genetic mutation which inhibits melanin and other pigments from being deposited in feathers, hair, or skin.
This rare white-as-snow sandhill crane was spotted Saturday morning in a group of several hundred gray cranes eating in a cornfield west of Fort Kearny State Historical Park.
Read more about this leucistic sandhill crane here.
***** 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.
by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers
Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (COE) Harlan County Lake recently to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. There is a growing need for more quality stopover areas during the Whoopers two 2,500 mile migrations each year. Typically, during migration, they stopover on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, feed and then continue their journey.
While checking out potential areas to protect and develop for Whooping Cranes, FOTWW also looks for opportunities to help other wild critters. Importantly, Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife and briefly share their habitats. Ensuring that sufficient areas with the proper conditions as stopover sites are available for Whoopers is important for the survival of the species. Practical management techniques implemented by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.
FOTWW and COE Tour Harlan County Lake
During FOTWW’s visit, Park Manager Tom Zikmund led us on a tour of the lake property so that we could to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Many potential areas were observed.
Harlan County Lake is large and has a comprehensive program. At top of conservation pool, the lake covers 13,250 surface acres. At top of the flood control pool, the lake covers 23,100 surface acres. A total of 17,750 acres of land surrounds the lake’s nearly 75 miles of shoreline.
There have been considerable fluctuations in lake water levels over the years. During drawdowns of lake waters large expanses of mud flats and shallow pools are created that favor many wading birds including Whooping Cranes. Importantly much of the lake bed has a gradual rise in elevation. When water levels in the lake rise some shallow areas become too deep for wading birds while new shallow areas are created near the shore.
COE Stewardship Mission
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental stewardship mission is to manage and conserve natural resources, consistent with ecosystem management principles, while providing public outdoor recreation to serve the needs of present and future generations. The Corps works in cooperation with several partners including the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Because of this cooperative relationship, the Corps has been able to enhance and revitalize thousands of acres of land surrounding the lake.
Harlan County Lake’s 7,875 acres of grassland is primarily classified as mixed grass prairie. Native prairies are managed by prescribed fire and hay production. Such practices help prevent invasion by non-native species, enhance prairie community health and increase wildlife habitat values. These grasslands can also provide important foraging areas for Whooping Cranes.
An important and effective habitat enhancement tools is the COE’s Agricultural Lease Program on 3,500 acres. This program makes many acres of public lands available for lease to farmers for the purpose of crop and hay production. Leased lands agreements include specific conditions to protect and conserve soil and water while enhancing vegetation and wildlife resources. Major crops include corn, milo and wheat that are rotated annually. Leases require that portions of the crops be left in the fields to provide abundant food and cover for wildlife. These crop lands are near the lake and can also provide very important foraging areas for Whooping Cranes.
Recreation Uses of Harlan Lake
Although not a primary purpose for the construction of Harlan County Lake, recreation has increasingly become a major component in the Corp’s multiple use approach to managing our nation’s resources. Recreation and favorable fish and wildlife habitats are among those beneficial uses derived from this lake and others like it. With lake property open to all, there are many attractive areas for outdoor recreation including birding, water sports, hunting, fishing, and boating, or just relaxed living.
Some of Harlan County Lake’s shore area is developed for recreational use and Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” is not compatible with some of these areas. Importantly, considerable areas of the lake’s nearly 75 miles of shoreline is shallow and is available as good “stopover roosting areas” for the cranes. Whoopers normally roost in areas with a water depth of 2 inches to 10 inches to help protect themselves from predators.
Several Whooping Cranes have been recorded using stopover sites on Harlan County Lake property. Whoopers normally migrate over or near Harlan County Lake during April (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). Whoopers normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart early the following morning.
A big surprise to FOTWW is the use of Harlan County Lake by many species of birds.
COE Park Manager Tom Zikmund told FOTWW: “It has been an amazing year for migratory waterfowl here at Harlan County Reservoir. Here are some of the highlights: An estimated one million snow geese stopped over on the lake from about February 26 – March 5. This is one of the largest numbers we have had over the years. In addition we had an estimated 50,000 Canada geese. Canada geese were here this winter from about December 20 thru February 1, 2018. Currently approximately 150 White Pelicans are on the lake. Also, there are currently about 15 different species of ducks on Harlan County Lake including mallards, greenwing teal, redheads, scaups, pintails, gadwalls, shovelers, merganzers, buffleheads, canvasbacks, and goldeneyes. We estimate that there are approximately 25,000 ducks on the reservoir. Likewise, some grebes and coots are showing up as well. We have observed several groups of sandhill cranes loafing on the exposed lake bed but to date no whooping cranes have been reported. Whooping cranes have stopped over on Harlan County Lake in the past but we have not spotted them recently. Some may have visited and were not observed.
Tom added, “The birding tourism is really picking up and we have had several groups and individuals stop by the lake office over the last few weeks to watch the migration.”