Operation Whooping Crane – A Bit of History

by Pam Bates

In 1966, official concern over the vulnerability of the Whooping Crane population led to a joint agreement between Canadian Wildlife Service, (CWS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS) to collaborate on a captive-breeding program to conserve the species. To accomplish this, eggs would have to be removed from nests in the wild at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP) and the man chosen and best suited for this task was wildlife biologist, Ernie Kuyt who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The whooping crane nesting area, a maze of water and land. Click photo to enlarge.

For eleven years, Bob Isbister worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service and for three years worked the flights during the whooping crane egg collection. Following is a memory of Bob’s during the egg collection at WBNP and working with Ernie Kuyt.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Bob for allowing us to share his memories and photos by USFWS and National Geographic.

Operation Whooping Crane by Bob Isbister

I worked for CWS for 11 years (1967 to 1978) as Wildlife Technician in the Surveys and Enforcement section (we rarely engaged in enforcement). I then left to pursue my ambition to go to university, graduating in 1981 with a Commerce Degree and have spent the ensuing years in the field of Economic Development.

206 Bird Dog Plane

My job in the bird dog plane was to record the reaction of the adult whooping cranes during the whooping crane egg pick up. How far they flew away etc. They all stayed within a few hundred yards, hence the importance of Ernie’s weekly, then daily flights to the nesting grounds. For the first couple of years, I had to take a “tourist” with me, either a scientist and once a well known National Geographic photographer.

The late Ernie Kuyt and the pilot had mastered locating most of the nests. Ernie conducted several pre-pick up flights to monitor egg laying. The plan was to pick up the eggs late in the incubation period to minimize the chance of the adults abandoning the nest.

The daily preflight briefing to learn the exact nest locations and the order in which they will be visited. Click on photo to enlarge.
The helicopter flying low over the whooping crane nesting grounds in search of nests containing eggs. You can see the helicopter in the lower right quadrant. Click on photo to enlarge.

Now this wasn’t easy flying, as we had to fly “orbits” while the chopper was on the ground for the whooping crane egg pick up. With about 14 nests done in 2 days, this represents a lot of turning, often made worse by turbulence. Luckily, I have pretty much an iron gut for this, but these poor guys invariably got sick and didn’t always hit the bag.

Operation Whooping Crane
That is me on the float on the 206, feeling mighty green under the gills. Pit stop at four mile lake south of Fort Smith. The egg pick up was done in two stages so as not to imperil all the eggs at once in the event of a chopper failure. This was the second year of the pickup operation (1968) and everyone was hyper vigilant. Click on photo to enlarge.

I remember lying down on the dock thinking “no way in hell I’m going back up in the afternoon”. But after a few minutes and the pilots call to “lets go to town and get some bacon and eggs, away I went, brand new again.

A sock and a stick

There is cute story about the officials designing a special box to help Ernie carry the whooping crane eggs from the nest to the helicopter. Upon seeing this ‘special’ box, Ernie said “Hell I’m not going to carry that thing in the marsh I’ve got a wool sock which is way better!” So he brought an extra woolen sock and proceeded to carry the eggs out, one by one. It was quite the sight seeing Ernie with the sock, egg inside in one hand and a stick for trudging back through the marsh in the other hand.

Ernie Kuyt approaching a nest (located in upper right) as helicopter waits. Click on photo to enlarge.
Ernie Kuyt, Canadian Wildlife Service, carries a whooping crane egg in a sock to a waiting helicopter at Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Click on photo to enlarge.

Traveling in style and the press

Eggs flying in style thanks to the Goverment of Canada to Laurel, Maryland. From L to R, Ray Erickson, Director Patuxent Research Centre and Glen Smart Asst Director. Click on photo to enlarge.
This operation was a big deal and attracted the press at every fuel stop. At the time the Whooping Cranes were in big trouble with only about 40 still alive. Click on photo to enlarge.

Overall, a very successful international project. Today there are an estimated 506 Whooping Cranes in the Aransas Wood Buffalo population.

Four Mile Lake

Four Mile Lake, just a few miles SE of Fort Smith, NWT. Click photo to enlarge.

The last memory and comment is about Four Mile Lake; it is about 1 mile long and maybe 400 yards wide, oriented NNW by SSE. There was marker buoy at both ends of the lake about 300 yards before the end. If you weren’t airborne by then it was abort time. Theoretically that is!

One afternoon we took off to the south in the freshly fueled 206 heading south. We were still on the water at the abort buoy, but undeterred the pilot pulled into the air; now I must say that those small black spruce that rimmed the lake never looked so tall. We cleared them and then the plane sunk to just above the muskeg where we coaxed more airspeed and altitude and away we went. I’ve never liked the 206 since!

 

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this historical article but Friends of the Wild Whoopers opposes egg collection from the nests of the wild whooping crane flock.

***** 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.

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
                                                                   

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Friends of the Wild Whoopers and Corps of Engineers visit Lewis and Clark Lake

Friends of the Wild Whoopers and Corps of Engineers visit to Lewis and Clark Lake to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”

By Chester McConnell, FOTWW

After receiving dozens of messages from concerned members, Friends of the Wild Whoopers decided to let you know all is OK. The virus has not infected any of our staff. Importantly, however, the virus has caused us to discontinue travel while there is a possibility of us being infected. When we are in the field, we travel an average of 1,500 miles each trip. During this travel we eat in many different restaurants, sleep in different motels each night and meet with about two dozen people. This type of living causes one to take a chance of becoming infected. So we have made the decision to halt our Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” project until conditions have improved. One good factor in this is that we are catching up on administrative responsibilities.

So, I also plan to let you know some details about our most recent joint Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) – Corps of Engineers (COE) “stopover habitat” project that some members have requested. I will begin with some details about our last field trip to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. During this trip we visited seven COE lakes, met with the staffs of each lake and made long field trips to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We examined some excellent habitats and many sites that could be improved and/or protected with a minimal amount of time and sound management.

The seven lakes we visited on this trip are Lewis and Clark Lake (NE/SD), Lake Francis Case (SD), Lake Sharpe (SD). Oahe Lake (SD/ND), Lake Sakakawea (ND), Fort Peck Lake (MO) and Pipestem Lake (ND). I will start by telling you about our trip to Lewis and Clark Lake. In the near future I plan to write a summary about the other six CO lakes we visited.

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats that FOTWW is hard at work attempting to bring to a halt. During their two 2,500 miles migration each year the whoopers must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Currently about half of the population winters off the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where they are not as safe. Continuous development along the coast is taking a serious toll on habitat.

FOTWW believes that the wild Whooping Cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population are capable of taking care of themselves with two exceptions. They need (1) humans to protect their habitats and (2) humans to stop shooting them. We firmly believe that the COE can do much to help protect and manage many “stopover habitats” on their lakes within the migration corridor.

Whooping Cranes make two 2,500 miles migrations each year. They migrate to and from their winter habitats on the Texas coast to their nesting habitats in northern Canada. During migration Whooping Cranes often stop over on private lands, wildlife areas, lakes, Indian Reservations and some military bases. However, many private lands are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming.

FOTWW contends that lands and waters on COE lakes, military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Some of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise, Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife species using the same habitats (Figure 1).

Lewis and Clark Lake
Figure 1. Deer and other wildlife species often use the same habitats as Whooping Cranes.

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 would be relatively minimal. Importantly any habitat projects deemed to be incompatible with the mission of the agencies involved would not be considered by FOTWW.

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 35 COE 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.

The COE and FOTWW Memorandum of Understanding allows us to focus on Whooping Crane habitat assessment and management recommendations on lands under the COE’s jurisdiction. We have been determining if any suitable areas could be managed, or appropriately developed to provide stopover habitats for Whooping Cranes. The next step would be to work to encourage appropriate management.

COE lakes within the 7 states migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitat”. Lewis and Clark Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable. As the crane population increases the migration corridor may also expand in width.

Lewis and Clark Lake is just one of the 35 USACE lakes that FOTWW has evaluated. It is one of the six COE lakes developed on the Missouri River that is within the center of the Whooping Crane migration corridor. Many other migratory bird species and millions of individual use the same migration corridor.

Whooping Cranes normally migrate over or near Lewis and Clark Lake during April – May (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). They normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart early to mid-morning the following day.

Mostly, 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, forage, roost and then continue their journey. Proactive techniques implemented by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.

We are aware that Lewis and Clark Lake area, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. United States Geological Survey personnel used location data acquired from 58 unique individuals fitted with platform transmitting terminals that collected global position system locations. Radio-tagged birds provided 2,158 stopover sites over 10 migrations and 5 years (2010–14) using individual Whooping Cranes. Whooping Cranes were observed in the lake vicinity several times. Also they have been recorded on several Indian Reservations along the lake.

FOTWW Wildlife Biologist Chester McConnell and FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Lewis and Clark Lake on September 10, 2019 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, COE made arrangements for our trip. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

FOTWW always reviews lake management documents to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the project. Where there is a healthy, productive environment with a diversity of plants and animals provides some evidence that the same area could be beneficial to Whooping Cranes. A summary of our review of COE documents follows:

Lewis and Clark Lake is a major reservoir in South Dakota and Nebraska located on the on the Missouri River. It has is a 31,400 surface acre reservoir during maximum pool. It is located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota on the Missouri River. The lake is approximately 28 miles in length with over 90 miles of shoreline.

In addition to providing recreational benefits for the region, Lewis and Clark Lake also provides drinking water to many communities located both in and outside of the watershed boundaries. The average annual precipitation in the watershed is 20 to 21 inches of which 77 percent usually falls in April through September. Land use in the watersheds is primarily cropland and grazing. Row crops and hay are the main crops on cultivated lands. Whooping Cranes have plenty to forage on when stopping over.

Habitat changes with the rise and fall of lake levels and affects the number of birds attracted to the reservoir in any given year. FOTWW’s review identifies how important the Lewis and Clark Lake complex is to a large variety of wildlife and fish. Bird watchers frequent Lewis and Clark as a prime area to visit. Bald eagles use the lake and nearby land as favorite habitat. Observant visitors can also spot wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and a large variety of other small birds and mammals.

Hunting is allowed on Lewis and Clark Lake property. Substantial hunting opportunities are available at Lewis and Clark SRA, which include upland game, big game and waterfowl. The lake property provided hunting opportunities for pheasant, quail, doves, deer and wild turkey.

The species listed in the federal list of threatened and endangered species are the bald eagle, which is listed as threatened, the American burying beetle, least tern, piping plover and whooping cranes which are listed as endangered.

In some areas of the lake, excessive sediment has resulted in problems. A project titled “Lewis and Clark Initial Watershed Assessment” has been evaluating the situation. The goal of the project is to locate critical portions of the watersheds draining to Lewis and Clark Lake to be targeted for detailed analysis to be conducted in cooperation with the state of Nebraska beginning in 2004.

The Keya Paha, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Ponca HUCs are all portions of the drainage that enter Lewis and Clark Lake on the Missouri River downstream of Fort Randall Dam. These drainages in combination with the Niobrara watershed in Nebraska drain approximately 10,158,000 acres, of which approximately 2,016,000 acres are located within South Dakota. Loads of suspended solids from these drainages have impaired recreation in Lewis and Clark Lake through sedimentation resulting in a reduction in the number of “useable” lake acres. The goal of this assessment is to locate critical regions in these drainages so that a more detailed study may be conducted to determine exact sources of sediment loads as well as the potential restoration alternatives.

Importantly, some of the threatened and endangered species that use Lewis and Clark Lake use the sediment bars and islands as nesting and roosting habitats.

Notably, during our review of several USACE and USFWS documents we detected only minor information about endangered Whooping Crane within COE documents. Friends of the Wild Whoopers has urged project staff to coordinate with their Omaha District officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a management plan for endangered Whooping Cranes.

Lewis and Clark Lake
Map of Lewis and Clark Lake located in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Figure 2. Phragmites is the brown colored plants in the river. Green arrows point to a small fraction of the phragmites. The plants grow in thick stands to a height of 6 to 8 feet. It is growing all across the lake on areas where shallow waters areas have formed. (See Fig. 3 photo of Phragmites). The numerous shallow water areas are caused by eroded soils from upstream areas. Lewis and Clark Lake is 30% full of sediment and increasing.
Figure 3. Phragmites growing during summer. It spreads rapidly and uses large quantities of water causing problems in some shallow lakes. There is no space for
whooping cranes or waterfowl in a thicket like this.
Figure 4. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks manage some sediment bars and islands as nesting and roosting habitats for least tern and piping plover which are listed as threatened and endangered species. Whooping Cranes which are listed as endangered also use some of these sites as “stopover habitats” to rest, forage and roost. So, while excessive sediment has created problems for some interest, it has benefits to others. Niobrara River contributes up to 60% of sediment entering Lewis and Clark Lake.
Figure 5. Helicopter making approach to the growth of phragmites in Lewis and Clark Lake. The helicopter will spray herbicide on the phragmites to kill it. The helicopter in this photo is spraying herbicide on the large growth of phragmites. If not controlled, the phragmites will take over the shallow water and wet soil areas and eliminate habitats that are used by numerous wildlife species. When the phragmites dries it will be burned to allow recovery of native plants and associated habitats. The COE and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks uses this as a major management practice for waterfowl and other wildlife that uses wetland. FOTWW was pleased to learn about the aggressive program to kill the phragmites and the use of prescribed fire to manage the area where this invasive plant was killed.
Figure 6. The prescribed fire is set and will be closely monitored by COE and Fish and Wildlife Service personnel.
Figure 7. The prescribed fire has burned all of the dead phragmites and shrubs in the burn area. The site is now prepared for additional wildlife management practices to be applied. Whooping Cranes could use the site as a “stopover habitat” in its current condition.
Figure 8. The prescribed fire has burned all of the dead phragmites and shrubs in the burn area. The site is now prepared for additional wildlife management practices to be applied. Whooping Cranes could use the site as a “stopover habitat” in its current condition.

***** 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.

fall migration
                                                                         friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 24, 2019

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
A newly arrived family group on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge Photo by Kevin Sims © 2017

It seemed like fall would never arrive after a long, hot summer, but cooler, shorter days have finally made an appearance with many species of migrants now frequenting the friendly skies!  Whooping Crane migration is in full swing and the first pair of our winter residents was reported by photographer John Humbert in the Seadrift area on October 9.  Regular U.S. migration hotspots like Quivira NWR in Kansas have already reported their first whooping cranes of the season as well. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look at Texas Whooper Watch:  Whooping Crane Look-Alikes.

It was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed South on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.

The Whooping Crane migration from WBNP to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to 50 days to complete. It is common for whooping cranes to spend a long period of time in Saskatchewan this time of year, “staging” for fall migration by foraging on abundant agricultural waste grains. Our partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service are actively monitoring whooping cranes in Saskatchewan now and have reported seeing several of our marked birds.  As of October 23, 14 marked birds were still north of the border in fall staging areas of Central Saskatchewan, one of them was in North Dakota, one was in South Dakota, one was in Kansas, one was in Oklahoma, and one was on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR.  There is a slight chance that some marked cranes are still on their breeding grounds in WBNP, but the lack of cellular towers make them untrackable until they begin to head south.

Report Texas Migration Sightings

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch.

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance

You might remember last fall and winter was a record wet period and we seem to be headed the other direction this year. This summer and fall was quite dry, with September, typically one of our wettest months of the year, only producing 2.94” of rain at Aransas NWR (2.94” of rain). Thus, much of the standing water that we saw across the Refuge last winter is now gone and freshwater wetlands are shrinking somewhat. Since June, we have recorded 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regards to what the future holds.

Habitat Management at Aransas:

We were able to burn a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes.  We also burned an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units.  By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access. Summer burns are often provide more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, thus are an important tool for us at Aransas NWR.

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In anticipation of migration

Now that summer has “unofficially” come to an end, our thoughts begin to focus on fall with its crisp cool days, leaves changing colors, and the upcoming whooping crane migration from Wood Buffalo National Park to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. We are not the only ones anticipating the beginning of migration. Our good friend Val Mann is also waiting for migration to begin. Each year, she and her sister Kim explore the grid roads of Saskatchewan, in search of the beloved and elusive whooping crane.

In anticipation of the start of migration, Val has been working on photos of a whooping crane family taken a couple of years ago and sent us the lovely photo that she was able to capture.

Val writes, “It’s almost time for whooping cranes to begin their annual return to Texas from their summer homes in Wood Buffalo National Park including their fall stopovers in Saskatchewan.  Sandhill cranes will also be on the move.  A couple of years ago, we were fortunate enough to photograph a family of whooping cranes in a roadside slough using our dusty grid road-coloured vehicle as a blind.  Cranes typically do not come close to the road as they tend to prefer the middle of fields, at least a mile or two from the road.  In this photograph, powerful telephoto lenses and post-production cropping give the illusion that the parent crane and colt were much closer than they actually were.  If extremely lucky this fall, we will see migrating cranes as they stage in farmers’ fields and sloughs.”

migration
Whooping cranes in a roadside slough in Saskatchewan. © Photo by Val Mann

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Val for her photo and we wish both Val and Kim success in their travels along the grid roads of Saskatchewan this fall.

***** 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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