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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Indian Reservations in the Dakotas have abundant Whooping Crane “stopover habitat”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Indian reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota are providing huge amounts of “stopover habitat” for migrating wild whooping cranes. As Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) wildlife biologist, I visited six of the reservations to evaluate numerous “stopover habitats” and to provide management recommendations”.

Indian reservations eager for FOTWW’s visit

I contacted the Great Plains Region Indian Headquarters to explain FOTWW’s whooping crane stopover habitat project. Regional Headquarters endorsed our efforts and furnished contact information for natural resource personnel on individual reservations. Natural resource personnel were then contacted on each reservation and FOTWW’s project explained to them. Each reservation wanted to be part of the project and invited FOTWW to visit them.

The reservations FOTWW visited collectively have approximately 2.6 million hectares of land. There are approximately 1,000 permitted range units and 6,000 farm/pasture leases on 7 reservations. The permitted areas and farm/pasture leases are managed under reservation guidelines which are largely useful to wildlife. The headquarters reservation biologist (each reservation has a biologist) advised that there are over 1,700 potential stopover ponds/wetlands on the reservations within the whooping crane migration corridor.

Goals for visitation

I made visits to each reservation: (1) to provide training for personnel about whooping crane stopover habitat needs, (2) to evaluate the habitats and (3) to make habitat management recommendations. Based on FOTWW field evaluations and accepted whooping crane habitat features, reservation natural resource personnel estimated that approximately 75% of the 1,700 ponds/wetlands could provide good stopover habitat, although some may require management criteria.

FOTWW was very impressed with whooping crane stopover habitats and their management on all reservation sited that we visited. We were also pleased with the cooperative attitude of all personnel that we met with.

Potential benefits of livestock

Finally, during the field trips, FOTWW detected an activity of livestock that is potentially beneficial to whooping cranes. As noted above, whooping cranes do not use wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore, where predators may be lurking. Around some ponds, we observed that livestock had grazed and trampled the vegetation when reaching a shallow area where they can safely enter the pond’s edge to obtain drinking water (Fig. 4). This resulted in unobstructed shore areas that would allow whooping cranes to use these ponds as stopover sites. Whooping cranes favor these same types of shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter ponds to roost. We observed this phenomenon of vegetation trampling by livestock on numerous wetlands, especially in North and South Dakota. Thus, livestock pond water resources could incidentally provide additional suitable stopover habitat for whooping cranes.

Evaluation progress

FOTWW has now completed whooping crane stopover habitat evaluations on all suitable military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor. Management recommendation reports have been provided to all areas visited.

Currently, we are evaluating Corps of Engineer Lakes within the migration corridor to locate, protect and manage stopover habitats for the only remaining wild Whooping Crane population on Earth. This work is being accomplished under a Cooperative Agreement with the Corps.

Indian reservations
Figure 1. Map showing Indian Reservations in North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Indian reservations
Figure 2. Cheyenne River Indian Reservation Sioux Tribe, S.D. Pond / wetland useful as a stopover habitat for by Whooping Cranes. Young men in photo are in a tribal work-study project. FOTWW taught them about the features that make ponds/wetlands to be good stopover habitats. They learned rapidly and will be the future managers of the natural resources on the reservation.

Indian reservations
Figure 3. Spirit Lake Reservation, (Fort Totten) N.D. This reservation has many good stopover habitats. Flight glide path is clear of obstructions for Whooping Cranes to land near roosting sites. There is no tall grass or woody vegetation around most of this lake. Shore area is shallow with areas 5 to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. Sloped are gradual or gentle into lakes / ponds where water is shallow. Little or no emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at roost areas. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Lake is 300 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Foraging fields with grain crops and insects within one mile of stopover area.

Indian reservations
Figure 4. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) and cattail invasion (B) has been restricted due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide suitable 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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We’re losing our wetlands

“Wetlands provide us with water, they protect us from floods, droughts and other disasters, they provide food and livelihoods to millions of people, they support rich biodiversity, and they store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Yet, the value of wetlands remains largely unrecognized by policy and decision makers.” (The Global Wetland Outlook, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands)

Wetlands in Saskatchewan and the U.S. are being lost and that’s a big problem

The world’s freshwater supplies are threatened as never before says Jay Famigletti, Executive Director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security. World-wide, wetlands are being destroyed at 3 times the rate of forests (35% losses since 1970) and one-quarter of wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction. Improved water management and governance are essential if we want to ensure future water and food security.

When the glaciers receded after the last Ice Age, they left behind an array of shallow depressions providing the Prairie Pothole Region with a wealth of small wetlands storing water and providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. In the past, farmers worked around the wetlands, but large farms, massive equipment, and a drive for greater efficiency and productivity have led to farmers draining the potholes.

There’s a strong sentiment among landowners that they can do what they want on their own land and that they should be applauded for their contributions to feeding the world. However, the farmers’ short-term interests are at odds with the long-term interests of the general public. Draining wetlands leads to flooding downstream, increases erosion, lowers the water table, and reduces the supply of water in times of drought. It also fails to recognize wetlands’ important role in carbon sequestration.

To read more about Saskatchewan’s wetland losses, click here.

With the continual loss of wetlands in Saskatchewan where the whooping cranes stage during their annual migration south, the article shows why saving stopover habitat along the 6 state flyway is so important.

wetlands
Large ditch draining a 100 acre wetland with bush clearing to turn the area into cultivated land. Photo courtesy of the Citizens Environmental Alliance – Saskatchewan

Effects of wetland losses on one species, the Whooping Crane

By Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Since 1941, the Aransas Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) of Whooping Cranes has increased from 15 birds to an estimated 526 as of winter 2018. Despite the increasing population trend, the whooping cranes of the AWBP remain defenseless against two depredations: habitat destruction and gunshot. During the 200-year period from 1780 to 1980, wetland acreage in the whooping crane migration corridor within the United States declined by over 14,826,000 acres  (6 million ha).  The whooping crane migration corridor in the United States includes the six states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles two times each year through the six states. They migrate from their Wood Buffalo National Park nesting area in Canada to their winter habitat in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico coast. During each migration, the cranes must “stopover” 15 to 30 times to rest and feed.  Regrettably loss of stopover habitats continues.

The full extent of threats to and loss of Whooping Crane stopover habitats within the migration corridor are difficult to quantify, but real. These habitats are being diminished and degraded due to a variety of factors, including intensified management on agricultural lands, construction of wind energy facilities and power lines, wetland drainage and reduction in river flows.  Changes in agricultural programs are continuing to further reduce the stopover habitats available for whooping cranes.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan (Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005) includes numerous references that describe various wetlands used as stopover sites. Important migration stopover sites in the United States include Cheyenne Bottoms State Waterfowl Management Area and Quivira NWR, Kansas; the Platte River bottoms between Lexington and Denman, Nebraska; and Salt Plains NWR, Oklahoma. These large sites have been designated as critical habitat for conservation of the species.  Critical habitat is defined in the U.S.Endangered Species Act as habitat that contains those physical or biological features, essential to the conservation of the species, which may require special management considerations or protection. Importantly, other stopover areas have also been documented, both large (e.g., Audubon NWR and Long Lake NWR in North Dakota;) and small. Moreover, whooping cranes are not site-specific each migration and rarely use the same wetland basins year to year.  For these reasons, Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) emphasizes that numerous other smaller stopover sites are also essential to ensure diverse opportunities for potential stopover use along the migration corridor

The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan calls for the protection of existing wetlands as whooping crane stopover areas and the enhancement of those wetlands that have been degraded by woody plant encroachment, silting, and/or draining within the migratory corridor. More specifically, the Recovery Plan spells out the need to: “Ensure long-term protection of migration stopover sites; Work with landowners and managers to ensure migration habitat remains suitable for cranes: Pursue stewardship agreements and conservation easements when needed, focusing on providing wetland mosaics”.

Actions by FOTWW to prevent wetland losses

Unfortunately, the Recovery Plan offered no specific entity to protect and manage potential stopover sites. FOTWW emphasizes that a realistic action plan should be developed to name specific agencies to protect and manage existing stopover wetlands and to create new ones. Within the United States’ portion of the migratory corridor, FOTWW could find no ongoing concerted effort that focuses on protection or enhancement of many stopover areas. Private conservation groups and government agencies have played a significant role in protecting wetlands used by whooping cranes, waterfowl, and many other wildlife species throughout the migration corridor. Funds from the sale of Duck Stamps have helped protect over 6 million acres (2.4 million ha)but many of those are managed for waterfowl in ways that may not be suitable for cranes (e.g., presence of tall emergent vegetation around the perimeter or deeper water that would deter cranes from roosting).

To address this gap in information and activity, FOTWW initiated a survey of entities with large land holdings that could possibly provide additional stopover areas. The project consisted of three phases: U.S. military bases, Indian Reservations and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lake properties within the migration corridor. As of December 2018 FOTWW has evaluated potential “stopover habitats” 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. FOTWW has prepared management reports for each area visited describing habitat management practices needed. Currently FOTWW is continuing to evaluate Corps of Engineer lakes and associate lands.  The most expensive part of establishing or improving habitat is land cost. If projects can be accomplished on government lands and Indian Reservations, the cost will be relatively minimal.

***** 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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Friends of the Wild Whoopers’ President to speak at Fort Worth Audubon

Friends of the Wild Whoopers' PresidentFriends of the Wild Whoopers’ president, Chester McConnell, will be speaking this Thursday night, Nov. 8, 2018 at the Fort Worth Audubon’s monthly meeting. He will be speaking briefly about the biology of the only wild population of Whooping Cranes on earth. He will also explain the efforts by Friends of the Wild Whoopers to protect, improve and develop “stopover habitats” for these endangered birds.

McConnell spent most of his professional career of 54 years evaluating land use and stream projects, wetland protection, conducting wildlife research, monitoring populations and managing wildlife habitats. Since retiring, he has focused his time on Whooping Cranes, wetland protection and stream protection.

McConnell became interested in Whooping Cranes when he was in the 5th grade. He read a brief article in the Weekly Reader which explained that the Whoopers had returned to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The article also explained that no one knew where the birds went to in the summer months.

McConnell eventually became a lifetime member of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. He was appointed as a Trustee and served as President one term. He managed their web page and newsletter (wife was Associate Editor) for 14 years. Currently, McConnell serves as President of Friends of the Wild Whoopers, a private, non-profit group whose mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. He has evaluated potential Whooping Crane habitats on 21 military bases, 8 Indian Reservation and 14 Army Corps of Engineers lakes.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers now works under an official Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate all lakes within the 6 state migration corridor (TX, OK, KS, NE, SD and ND). Services to the military, Indian Reservations and the Corps have been performed at no cost to the recipients.

Time and Location of Meeting

The meeting will begin at 7:30 pm with a short 15 minute business meeting followed by McConnell’s presentation. Meetings are held in Everett Hall, Room 100, in the Research and Education (RES) building at the University of North Texas Health Science Center on 3500 Camp Bowie Boulevard (at Montgomery Street) Fort Worth TX 76107. Use Parking Lot 6 on Clifton Street. Enter the RES building ground floor at the northwest corner of Parking Lot 6.

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