Some good things come in small packages

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Good things come in small packages

Sometimes good things come in small packages. For example Hords Creek Lake in mid-west Texas is on my mind. Friends of the Wild Whoopers visited this Corps of Engineers (COE) lake recently and we were totally surprised. The purpose for our visit was to evaluate existing and potential “stopover habitat” for wild Whooping Cranes. To our pleasant surprise, we visited a fantastic place. During our 876 mile road trip back to our home office we discussed our habitat survey of all four lakes we visited (Jim Chapman, Ray Roberts, Lewisville and Hords Creek).
During the past two years FOTWW has visited 27 COE Lakes in Texas and all have good programs that focus on natural environmental resources. While all COE lakes we have visited are impressive places, some including Hords Creek Lake are special.

Dorothy McConnell, FOTWW’s Field Assistant summed up our discussion by stating: “Hords Creek Lake is small but has beautiful and bountiful habitat for any visiting wild Whooping Cranes.” The lake’s conservation pool is only 510 acres – small when compared with most COE lakes. But size is only a part of what one must take into account when evaluating lakes for the Whoopers. When considering all the other features including fishing, bird watching, swimming and camping you have a lavish set of resource at Hords Creek Lake.

Impressive diversity

The diversity of habitats at Hords Creek is impressive from beaver pond wetlands, to abundant shore area shallows and the western section shallow area. The following figures will give readers a better perspective of Hords Creek Lake.

Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 1. The wetland in this photo was created by beavers building a dam in a stream below Hords Creek Lake. Whooping Cranes often “stopover” in these wetland types to rest forage and roost.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 2. The pond in this photo aids in supplying clear water to the beaver wetland down stream. Also the proposed cleared area will provide a good foraging area for the cranes.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 3. Located between the two arrows is a wetland formed in a shallow inlet. Total size is one acre with much foraging foods for Whooping Cranes. Several similar wetlands are located around the lake shore.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 4. This photo shows a typical shore area of Hords Creek Lake. Whooping Cranes can walk down the gradual incline shore area into the shallow water where they prefer to roost. Note the narrow stand of grass and aquatic weeds along the shore that provides habitat for frogs, salamanders and various aquatic insects that Whoopers can feed on. The short bushes in the shallow water may provide some protection for the 5 foot tall Whoopers who can reach over the bushes and attack any predators.
Good things come in small packages - Hords Creek Lake
Figure 5. This beautiful shore area is typical along much of the shore. Such wetland areas all contribute to the food supply and roosting sites for wild Whooping Cranes. Much of the shore area is mowed often to maintain the “park like” habitat. It also serves any Whooping Cranes that may visit the lake.

***** 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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37 Fledglings Counted During Whooping Crane Survey On Wood Buffalo National Park

whooping crane survey
A photo of one of the 2019 fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have completed their joint whooping crane fledgling surveys on Wood Buffalo National Park and surrounding area. A total of 37 fledged chicks from 36 sets of parents were observed. An increase from last year’s 24 fledglings. It appears that conditions at the park were better than last year. May rainfall was only 84% of normal, however, in June rainfall was 141% above normal, with most (22mm) of that falling on June 2 just as some of the chicks were hatching.

The fledgling survey is done in between the end of July and mid-August.  Fledglings are birds that have reached an age where they can fly. The technique for this survey is very similar to the breeding pair survey.  The nest locations are known so that the staff can fly directly to the nest.  If the Whooping Cranes have not been successful in raising a chick they may still be in their territory or they could be kilometers away. If a pair does have a chick, they are generally found fairly close to their nest.

whooping crane survey
Looking for fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Importance Of Surveys

Both the Nest and the Fledgling Surveys are part of the world-class restoration plan that has made the endangered Whooping Crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. By counting the number of fledgling 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 of Whooping Cranes that contribute greatly to our ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

whooping crane survey
Helicopter used during fledgling survey. © Photo by Parks Canada

WBNP and nearby areas provide the last natural nesting habitat for the endangered Whooping Cranes. The birds are hatched in and near WBNP each spring. After they fledge they migrate 2,500 miles to their winter habitat on, or near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. During their 2,500 mile migration they stopover 20 to 30 times to rest, forage for food and roost during the nights. Then, the following April the total population returns to WBNP to repeat the reproduction cycle again.

 

The video below, sent to FOTWW by Parks Canada is of one of the 2019 fledglings.

FOTWW thanks all those involved in this recent survey and a thank you to Parks Canada for sending us photos and short video for everyone to enjoy.

Whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada

 

whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada
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BREAKING NEWS: 97 WHOOPING CRANE NESTS COUNTED ON CANADA’S WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK

BREAKING NEWS: Ninety seven (97) Whooping Crane nests were counted on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds during May 2019. Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service cooperated on the count and released this information today. This is the second highest nest count ever for the endangered Whooping Cranes. The largest number of nests ever counted was 98 in 2017.
Happy New Year
Whooping Crane on nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Photo by Klaus Nigge

Additional information on this great news will be published soon.

 

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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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