Guest Author:  Walter Sturgeon

Spring 2010 was an exciting time at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR) as 12 pairs of Whooping Cranes nested and initiated incubation. One of those pairs, 9-03, and her mate 3-04 nested for the fifth time. The female has a checkered past.

As a young bird she had wandered far and wide and had been in, or flew over, just about every state in the eastern United States and at least two provinces in Canada. Of all the birds I have helped to reintroduce into the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes, she is by far the most interesting, and one that I had a post-reintroduction experience with.

I monitored her one whole winter in North Carolina where she wintered with two other Whooping Cranes on a beaver pond in Jones County. Some of you might remember my story in OM’s website Field Journal about her leaving on her northern migration and flying over my house to say farewell. But I have only abstracted a few tidbits in this introduction. ”And now for the rest of the story” as radio personality Paul Harvey used to say.

Number 9-03 hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center on May 5th 2003. She was described as, “ the most independent member of her cohort and strays farthest from the trike during taxiing.” Obviously her wanderlust could be predicted at a very young age.

She was a small female, but a super forager, and Brian Clauss from Patuxent observed that if, “You could drop that bird in the middle of a city and she’d find something to eat!” She made her first trip to Wisconsin on June 19, 2003 aboard a Windway Capital aircraft in a box especially designed for young cranes, and joined the rest of her cohort in one of the training site pens at NNWR.

Her summer was uneventful and she learned to fly and follow the ultralight. She left Necedah on October 16, 2003 and flew all but 18 miles of the ultralight-led migration, arriving at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida on December 8th after a 54 day migration. Yes, I said a 54 day migration.

Winter at Chassahowitzka was uneventful and 9-03 left the refuge on March 30, 2004 at 9:33am with 7 other cranes. By midday on April 1st, the eight birds had made it to Macon County, North Carolina, 462 miles north of the departure point. This put the young cranes east of the mountains and 85 miles from their original migration route. By late morning, winds had increased to 15-25mph from the northwest – a strong headwind – and on reaching western North Carolina they were met by a low cloud-ceiling and drizzle.

On April 3rd the Whoopers were still in North Carolina along a river in the Nantahala National Forest when they were discovered by a person who started crossing the river intent on approaching the cranes. Fortunately, a conscientious passerby stopped the person before he was able to get close enough to catch one of the birds – which was his stated purpose.

On April 4th another unthinking person who lived nearby arrived on the scene in his car, with his wife and three children. He drove as close as he could get to the young cranes, and the five exited their car and approached the cranes. The wary cranes had had enough. They flushed immediately, and at 5 p.m. as they climbed out of their less than serene setting of the past 3 days, one of them hit a power line.

One observer reported that all eight cranes continued to climb however, and as darkness fell he watched as they circled overhead, gaining altitude for almost an hour, before setting course toward the north. Richard Urbanek, a USFWS biologist/tracker, was nearby and was able to track them through the forested area for only a short time before losing their radio signals.

I go into this detail because many of us think that this one instance in the cranes’, and especially 9-03’s, first northward migration accounted for their odd migration routes and behaviors over the next few years.

Number 9-03 carried a satellite transmitter that allowed her and the others traveling with her to be located on a frequent basis. She, and 4 other cranes wound up in Michigan that summer. Included in that group were 1-03, 5-03 and 18-03, who would stay with her as they migrated south that fall.

Number 5-03 was killed, probably by a bobcat, on the night of November 13/14 on the Cape Romaine National Wildlife Refuge in Charleston, South Carolina. The three remaining cranes moved northward the next day to Georgetown County, SC. After several short northward flights they ended up in Jones County, NC on November 20. There they roosted in a beaver pond loaded with crayfish and never traveled more than a couple of miles to various grain fields during the rest of the winter.

Living about two hours away, I took on the job of monitoring them a couple of times a week. They developed a routine that saw them fly out in the early morning to glean what they could in nearby corn fields. Eventually they discovered a hunter’s seed plot very near their beaver pond roost area. The plot included milo, corn, and millet. It was there that I saw them for the last time that winter. They left on their northward migration on March 30, 2005.

You might have read my story about being there that day and having them come into a mixed grain field and land near a small pond where I was hidden in a hunter’s tree stand. They didn’t bother to graze, staying only about 15 minutes. They took off and circled the field a couple of times and headed off to the northwest.

I listened on my tracking radio receiver for about half an hour until the signals died out. I had about a 30 minute walk back to my car and then a two hour drive home. For some reason I never turned off the radio receiver, and as I turned into my driveway it started beeping. For the next 30 minutes I listened as the cranes flew over my house. Had come to say goodbye? It was a chilling experience.

The three cranes stayed together until they reached Ontario, east of Lake Huron. On May 8th, number 9-03 was seen alone on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River northwest of Lake Ontario, just across the New York border. She next turned up in Vermont on June 9th, and went from there to Lewis County, NY. While she traveled around the northeast, 1-03 and 18-03 were captured in Michigan and relocated back to Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2005 9-03 was still in New York state, having last been seen there on October 27th. In December she showed up in Beaufort City, NC. Her satellite transmitter had run out of battery power so no one knows where she was in the interim. On December 9th she was captured, fitted with another transmitter, and moved to Madison County, Florida. This is where the persistence story begins as the tracking team tried to reorient her to the desired migration route. Later that year she visited the pen at Chassahowitzka where she had spent her first winter in Florida.

In the spring of 2006, 9-03 migrated north with a young female, 20-05, on March 27. They were seen together in Tennessee on March 29th and 30th. She again didn’t make it back to Wisconsin, once again ending up in New York, but this time with the young female she had led astray. On May 6th both were captured and moved by plane to NNWR. This move was the second attempt at reorientation. The two cranes stayed together in central Wisconsin all that summer.

9-03 and 20-05 migrated together in the fall and appeared at the Chassahowitzka pensite on December 20, 2006. The reorientation was beginning to work it seemed. It was the first time she had returned to Florida since she was led there by the ultralights. They to cranes stayed in the Chassahowitzka area and the nearby mainland for the winter.

On the 2007 spring migration 9-03 and 20-05 left Florida on March 19. The younger female, 20-05, went to Wisconsin, while 9-03 went on a grand tour to Michigan, New York, Ontario, and then back to New York. She still had not found her way back to Wisconsin on spring migration.

In October of 2007 she was captured yet again and flown back to Wisconsin. As they say, ”the third time is the charm”, and in this case the third relocation worked. She immediately stole male 3-04 from female W1-06, the first wild-hatched chick. The question was…would the bond last and would they migrate together?

In fact they did migrate to Florida that fall and stayed together during the winter. In the spring of 2008 the big question of where they would go was answered on March 27 when they showed up at the Necedah refuge. On April 9, 9-03 was observed incubating eggs. She and 3-04 incubated until May 3rd when their nest failed. They spent the summer on the refuge and migrated together to Florida that fall along with 9-03’s old friend, 20-05.

In late February 2009 the three cranes left Florida and 9-03 and 3-04 arrived in Wisconsin on March 23 and were already incubating eggs by April 8. Their nest failed again on May 3rd, but this time their eggs were salvaged. Both eggs hatched and became ultralight chicks 6-09 and 8-09 in the ultralight-led Class of 2009 – both chicks are still in the population. The parent pair re-nested, but their second nest failed on June 14.

The pair left Wisconsin on December 7, 2009 and was seen by plane on January 20, 2010 in a swamp in Lafayette County, Florida where they spent the rest of the winter. On March 9, 2010 they were observed during their northward migration in Richland County, Illinois and were found to be nesting on April 5 on the Necedah refuge. That nest failed on April 11th.

By April 29-30th they had nested again. This time they hatched two eggs and the family was spotted by OM pilot Richard van Heuvelen during a monitoring flight on May 31. Unfortunately, one of their chicks had disappeared by the 6th or 7th of June. The other chick, a female, designated W1-10, fledged in August and in the fall, left on migration with her parents.

Persistence does pay off! The work of a lot of dedicated and talented individuals re-oriented 9-03 to a life of migrating as desired from Wisconsin to Florida and back by capturing it 3 times and moving it once to Florida and twice to Wisconsin. They made it possible for her to meet and pair with 3-04. Once that bond was established she followed the male who is faithful to his own natal area, as are most male Whooping Cranes. Together they have produced 3 living off-spring in the Eastern Migratory Population. I say again, PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF!

Author’s Note: I am indebted to Jane Duden of Journey North for her fine history of each of the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes from chick to the present. Without her work it would have taken weeks to reconstruct the history of 9-03 and her associates.

(Walter Sturgeon is a member of Operation Migration’s Board of Directors, and for the past 7 years, his 30 years of crane experience and many other skills have been invaluable assets in his role as a volunteer member of the migration crew.)

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