Corps of Engineers Lakes Being Examined As Whooping Crane Stopover Habitat

By Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Many have asked us how the Friends of the Wild Whoopers’, (FOTWW) “stopover habitat” program is doing. We can say that since we started our program that it has been met with overwhelming interest and many positive accolades. What we are happy to see is that the military, reservations and Corps of Engineers are very enthusiastic and eager to provide suitable and healthy habit for our wild whooping cranes as they migrate along the Central Flyway.

stopover habitat
Whooping Crane stopover habitat with one juvenile and two adult Whooping Cranes. Photo by John Noll

FOTWW is hard at work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect and improve Corps’ lakes for Whooping Cranes “stopover habitat”. During their 2,500-mile migration from Canada to Texas the Whooping Cranes must stop and rest 15 to 20 times. Unfortunately this important habitat is being lost due to developments of various kinds. So FOTWW sought the Corps help. The Corps has over 100 large lakes in the migration corridor that wild Whooping Cranes use two times each year. So the Corps agreed to help and a Memorandum of Understanding has been developed between them and FOTWW.

Whooping Cranes have completed their fall migration from Wood Buffalo nesting area to Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. They normally stopover an average of about 10 to 20 times during their journey. They need to rest and feed occasionally during the 2,500 mile trip. Some of these birds stopover on Corps’ lakes and FOTWW believed many more will use the lakes once more habitats have been improved.

Corps lakes as potential stopover habitat

Chester McConnell, President of Friends of the Wild Whoopers’ is currently traveling to Corps lakes and making evaluations of their potential as stopover habitat. To date, he has visited Benbrook Lake, Lavon Lake Bardwell Lake and Granger Lakes in Texas. In Nebraska, he visited Harlan County Lake. And in Kansas he recently completed visits to Wilson Lake, Kanopolis Lake and Milford Lake. McConnell explained that he was pleasantly surprised at the currently excellent quality of some lake properties. And, he followed, “I believe that much more habitat can be greatly improved at very low costs.” FOTWW is committed to continue their cooperative project with the Corps to provide more habitat for the endangered Whoopers.

Stopover habitats already evaluated

FOTWW has already completed evaluations of Whooping Crane habitats on 31 U.S. military bases and 8 Indian Reservations. All had some good habitats but many needed improvements. FOTWW prepared evaluation reports with recommendations for improvements where needed.

Some of the wetland pond habitats on military bases and Indian Reservations will require minor management to suit the needs of Whoopers but the managers are up to the task advised McConnell. Military bases are legally required to have natural resources programs and the stopover project is completely compatible with the laws. Project leaders do not request base officials to do anything that would interfere with the military mission of the bases.

“Stopover places are just as important as wintering and nesting areas because Whooping Cranes can’t fly the entire 2,500 migration corridor in one trip,” McConnell explained.

Won’t you please consider helping?

If you would like to help us continue this on going project, would you please consider becoming a member/friend or making a donation to help our efforts and some of our expenses? You can either become a member/friend or you can send us a donation by check or PayPal. Please click here .

FOTWW is an all volunteer nonprofit organization and no one receives a salary, so all of your contributions go to help the only natural wild flock of Whooping Cranes remaining on earth.

Won’t you please consider helping us so we can help them?

Endangered, there is still time, but extinct is forever!

THANK YOU!

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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, November 20, 2017

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update

Fall migration is coming to a close and whooping cranes have all moved south out of their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). It was a record breeding year in WBNP; with above average conditions contributing to an estimated 63 fledged whooping cranes headed South on their first migration to Texas. The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to about 50 days to complete. It will probably be a few more weeks until the entire Aransas Wood Buffalo whooping crane population has arrived on the Texas coast. We were able to fit a few whooping crane juveniles this August in WBNP with new cellular-based telemetry equipment, and I want to walk you through the fall migration of one of these juveniles and its parents.

First off, let me provide a bit of information about our new telemetry devices. In our former telemetry study, we used satellite-based telemetry. These devices provided 3-5 locations every 24 hours and communicated that via space satellite. Our new telemetry devices have the capability to provide significantly more data compared to our previously used devices. We are now using cellular-based telemetry devices, meaning they relay location data using ground-based cellular towers, just like your mobile phone does. The device is powered by a solar-charged battery. As long as the marked bird is in the range of a cellular tower, we receive a data download every day via internet. Each data download contains locations for the bird every 30 minutes over the past 24 hours. The new telemetry devices are also equipped with what is called an accelerometer, meaning we can determine the speed of the bird, indicating if it is in flight or on the ground.

The journey of “7A”, fall 2017 migration:

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
A newly arrived family group on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge Photo by Kevin Sims

On 2 August, a team of biologist captured and marked a 3 month old whooping crane in Wood Buffalo National Park, around the nest where he was hatched about 60 miles south of the Great Slave Lake, and fitted him with one of our new cellular-based telemetry units (identified as “7A”). This young whooping crane and his parents left their breeding area the morning of 26 September, to start on their long journey south.

On the first night away from their nesting area, 7A and his family roosted on Gipsy Lake, 35 miles SE of Fort McMurray, AB. The next morning (27 September) the family traveled to Witchekan Lake near Spiritwood, SK and spent the night. On the morning of 28 September, they traveled to their “staging ground” area, the prairie pothole region of Central Saskatchewan. They spent the next month foraging on waste grains in the agricultural areas and in wetlands around Prud’ Homme, SK. After a strong frontal passage bringing northerly winds and colder weather, they proceeded south on the morning of 29 October.

They crossed the Canada/United States border around mid-day near the NW corner of North Dakota and spent that night on the banks of the Missouri River about 20 miles SE of Bismarck, North Dakota. The next morning, 30 October, they continued south, roughly following the Missouri River as it winds through South Dakota. With a strong tailwind, they were able to cross South Dakota in about 3 hours, without stopping. They continued through Nebraska that day, crossing the Platte River just east of Gibbon, Nebraska. They did not stop in Nebraska either, traversing the state in about 4 hours. That evening they arrived at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Central Kansas, known as the largest interior wetland in the United States. This is a well-known and established migration stopover habitat location for not only whooping cranes, but a number of other migratory bird species. The next afternoon, on 31 October, they traveled about 20 miles south to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, where they would spend the next 12 days. Quivira NWR received a record amount of migrating whooping crane use this fall, with over 112 individuals reported there, more than 25% of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population.

They left Quivira NWR on the morning of 12 November and traveled south about 150 miles to an area of native mixed-grass prairie about 3 miles west of Fairview, Oklahoma. They spent 3 days there, leaving on the morning of 15 November and crossing the Texas border mid-day just to the east of Wichita Falls. That night, they roosted on a farm pond in Bosque County in central Texas. The morning of 16 November, the family continued south through Texas, stopping briefly in southern Bastrop County and then northern Gonzales County. Evidently they were disturbed that night as they made several, short nighttime movements just west of Waelder, Texas. Nocturnal flight is fairly rare and relatively unknown for whooping cranes, but our new telemetry devices allows us to observe this behavior. Only a short distance from their winter home, they left the morning of 17 November and headed south. Early that afternoon, they flew over Victoria, just north of Aransas NWR. Shortly thereafter, they made it to the Tatton Unit of Aransas NWR and roosted there along Salt Creek. The next morning, they made a short jump south and set up what looks to be their wintering territory here on Aransas NWR, where they will likely spend most of their time over the next several months.

The “7A” family had a fairly normal fall migration, taking 52 days and a bit over 2,500 miles to complete. You’ll note that the “pit stops” that they made along the way almost always were tied to quality wetland and prairie habitats. Protecting and restoring these types of habitats across the vast Great Plains of North America really is key to making sure whooping crane migrations are successful.

Texas Whooper Watch

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via email: whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512) 389-TXWWW (8999)

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance:

You’ve likely seen many of the news articles related to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on Aransas NWR, so I won’t go into detail here on that topic. But from all appearances, the coastal marsh habitat that whooping cranes rely on here in the winter seem to have held up well to what is a natural disturbance. While the human impact has been significant, natural habitats often quickly recover after this type of event. From a long-term perspective, the freshwater inflows associated with the hurricane’s rain event will improve coastal marsh condition. We’ve seen a number of whooping cranes that have arrived at Aransas NWR foraging successfully in the coastal marsh as they have for eons. We will continue to monitor habitat conditions and whooping crane behavior and adjust our management accordingly.

Long-time volunteers recognized:

I want to take a minute to recognize a few long-time volunteers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge that really do make a difference for our wildlife and wild places. First off, Ron Smudy, a long-time volunteer at Aransas, will be awarded as the 2017 Coastal Steward by the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation at the annual Environmental Awards banquet on 7 December. Ron has put a great deal of “sweat equity” into Aransas over the years, from mowing, cutting and spraying invasive species to helping our maintenance staff with all sorts of projects. We truly wouldn’t have the Refuge as we know it without folks like Ron. Additionally, I want to recognize Fred and Linda Lanoue, long-time board members of the Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island Refuge. They will soon be leaving Texas and were honored this past Saturday at a luncheon, thanking them for all their work with environmental causes around the Texas coastal bend. Fred and Linda’s tireless work with the FAMI board help us accomplish worthwhile projects that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Unfortunately, both Ron and the Lanoue’s were personally impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Our hearts go out to them as they start new chapters in their lives and we reflect on all the good work they have done at Aransas NWR.

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An afternoon with a whooping crane family

By Val Mann – Guest Author

Very early Thursday morning Kim and I packed up Max (our car) and headed three hours north to the whooping cranes’ preferred staging grounds in farmers’ fields and sloughs. It was a warmish, beautiful, sunny day – perfect for a drive in the countryside.

Max doubles as a blind with the camera lenses through open windows. The car is a gold-brown colour and usually coated with a layer of grid road dust – perhaps blending with the golden harvested fields. Whatever the reason, wildlife tend to ignore the car.

Whooping crane
Whooping crane family foraging in the slough. Photo by Val Mann

Just over a grid road hill, a family of whooping cranes, parents and a colt, were foraging in a roadside slough. The family ignored us and continued to feed. At one point, judging from the behaviour, the parents wanted to roost and snooze in the warm prairie afternoon sunshine. Junior showed signs of being bored. After unsuccessfully trying to rouse the parents, the colt went foraging for snacks, wandering towards us. The parents kept a watchful eye on the youngster while they preened, but did not raise alarm. Eventually the colt returned to roost with the parents. Not that long after, a huge grain truck drove by and the cranes flew deep into the fields.

Wow, what an amazing experience to share time with them!

This was not a typical sighting. Normally the cranes are extremely human intolerant and keep at least 500 metres (about 1500 feet) from roads, humans, etc. The middle of a farmer’s field would be the norm.

Please note that we were actually a distance away – on a pullover off the far side of the road. The powerful super telephoto lens and post-production cropping make the birds appear considerably closer than they actually were.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is very thankful that Val Mann shared her adventure with us. We hope that you enjoyed it and the photos below of the family of wild whooping cranes that she sent along to go with her story. Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge.

Thank you, Val!

Whooping Crane
Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann

 

Whooping Crane
Whooping crane family preening together while roosting. Photo by Val Mann

 

Two whooping cranes: Junior and a parent, in flight. Photo by Val Mann
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Cows helping Whooping Cranes

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is continuing its project to encourage development and management of stopover habitats for migrating Whooping Cranes. We have visited military bases, Indian Reservations and some private lands within the six state migration corridor (TX, OK, KS, NE, SD and ND). Our mission is to provide advice to land managers about how to develop and/or manage existing ponds/wetlands to be useful as roosting/feeding sites for migrating Whooping Cranes. The cranes must stopover approximately 15 to 20 times during their 2,500 mile migration between Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting area and their wintering area at Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast.

Some management relationships discovered

During our field trips to the various sites we have learned about some management relationships that we had not been aware of. We learned that livestock, including cattle and bison can make some ponds/wetlands more suitable as stopover areas. Livestock normally walk around ponds until they reach a shallow area where they can safely enter the ponds and drink. As they are moving around they are also grazing and trampling vegetation on pond shores. Whooping Cranes use these same shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter the ponds to roost. We observed this relationship on numerous ponds/wetlands especially in North and South Dakota.

Whooping Cranes avoid certain sites

Whooping Cranes do not use ponds/wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore. They avoid sites anywhere they would have to move through dense vegetation where predators may be lurking such as shown in Figure 1.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 1. This pond’s shore area is covered with a dense growth of cattail vegetation. Whooping Cranes will not attempt to use ponds with these conditions. When selecting a pond where they can roost for the night, the cranes glide in (Fig. 2) and land on the shore. Then they walk into a shallow area of the pond and roost where they are safer from predators. Predators such as coyotes and bobcats can hide in dense vegetation and jump on Whoopers and kill them.
Whooping Cranes
Figure 2. Whooping cranes gliding onto shore of nearby pond. They will observe their surroundings to look for danger. Then they will walk into a shallow area of the pond to roost for the night. Because of their long legs and 5 foot height, they can defend themselves against predators while roosting in water. Whoopers landng by Diane Nunley

Fortunately, around some ponds, livestock have grazed and trampled the vegetation while getting a drink and grazing the more succulent vegetation (Figure 3).This results in more unobstructed shore areas that allow Whooping Cranes to use ponds as stopover sites.

Some concern has been expressed that livestock cause shoreline erosion and contamination of the stock dams/ponds that results in some murky, dirty water. While this may have some merit, FOTWW did not detect any serious problems. We carefully observed the water in the ponds visited and could clearly see the pond bottom in shallow areas. We also firmly believe that the advantages of the stock dams/ponds far outweigh any disadvantages. Use of the ponds/wetland water resources by numerous species and many thousands of individual wild animals has caused the military and Indian Reservation’s habitats to be much more productive.

Some ponds in excellent condition

Some of the stock dams/ponds on the areas visited are currently in excellent condition to serve as secure Whooping Crane stopover habitats. And some other ponds/wetlands could easily and inexpensively be developed into good habitats. However others are not useful for Whooping Cranes because cattails, bushes and trees are thick along the shore areas. On these latter ponds FOTWW recommends that they be managed for other wildlife species that prefer dense vegetative cover.

Importantly, FOTWW contends that it is not necessary or desirable to modify or manage all ponds for Whooping Cranes but rather focus on a subset with the best ponds and surrounding landscape characteristics. Open landscapes including pasture and crop land allows Whooping Cranes to easily locate the ponds and provides ready observation of any predator threats.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 3. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) while cattail (sp.) invasion has been restricted (B) due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide 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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