My background is in the arts and throughout most I my life I had little to do with science. I spent almost thirty years as a commercial photographer, shooting pictures for companies like Ford, Honda and BMW. I created the images for those glossy brochures they hand out to prospective buyers.
That’s one of the many reasons I now work with Whooping cranes; so that in the end there will something left behind for my daughter and her generation, that is more important than a stack of outdated car catalogues.
I have now spent more than twenty years working with birds but I am not an expert. That is the difference between the arts and the sciences. The rules in art are meant to be broken. The more creatively you shatter them, the more your work is respected.
Science, on the other hand, is about discovering the rules that govern your field of research. Those rules are unbreakable, which is likely why they are referred to as the laws of nature. Understanding those laws, let alone discovering new ones, is a lifelong endeavor and the more you understand the laws of nature, the better equipped you are to work within them.
In my thirty year photography career I broke a few of the rules of art and had a modicum of success. But the laws of science require years of education and experience to comprehend even in general terms and I have not yet paid those dues. Any success Operation Migration has had is not based on academic credentials. Instead it is the result of innovative ideas and the willingness to tackle them. It is a combination of passion and stubbornness.
Misdirected passion however, can often be the quickest route to failure so a successful reintroduction like this, requires a balance between the science of knowing what to do, and the passion to get it done. There is a great deal of talent within WCEP on both sides of that equation.
In 2012 we began an 18 month long, Structured Decision Making process to develop a five year strategic plan. An SDM uses population modelling, algorithms and the experience of specialists to transparently examine difficult questions when many of the variables are unknown. In other words, a team of experts looked at every aspect of this project from costume rearing to nest abandonment. Each topic was discussed at length, evaluated, weighted and modelled. In the end it was determined that the best chance this population has of persisting is for WCEP to continue releasing birds into the Horicon and White River areas and to evaluate their breeding rate in that black fly free zone.
Both Horicon and White River have their pros and cons. Although Horicon has the largest wetland complex, much of it is covered with cattail that is inaccessible for Whooping cranes. It is also well used by the public which is why it was not selected when Necedah was picked as the primary location. White River is more isolated for nesting birds but the habitat best suited for Whooping cranes, is fragmented without large areas of open water. As neither of these areas is ideal, the WCEP Guidance Team agreed that we would continue to use both. That means that both the DAR and the UL technique will be used for the next five years, subject to annual reviews. In addition, we will continue to experiment with the Parent Reared technique.
The other question addressed by the SDM committee was to identify the best course of action for the birds that continue to use Necedah and the surrounding area. A proposal to use nest management techniques was peer reviewed and approved by WCEP. All of the chicks that have been produced so far are the result of late nests that came to fruition after the black fly season was over. Starting this spring, biologists will monitor temperature-days to predict when the black flies will hatch. Just prior to that date, the eggs will be collected from half of the nesting pairs. The other half will be used as a control group however; it is likely that many of them will abandon their nests if the black flies come out in force. Those eggs will also be salvaged using the existing protocol of waiting a specific time period to ensure that they actually are abandoned.
The purpose of this study is to determine if there is a less invasive method of avoiding the black fly season, which normally coincides with the first Whooping crane nests. A multi-year experiment using BTi to reduce black fly numbers was conducted from 2010 to 2013. The best results were achieved in 2012 when roughly 90% of the offending insects were killed. That year, two chicks survived to fledge. The black flies made a full recovery after that year of suppression and in 2013 no Bti was used. As a result, one chick survived to fledge. Many stakeholders believe that an increase in population of only one bird does not justify the use of a control agent such as Bti.
Applying Bti is not a simple process. It requires state permits, public approval, access to private property and application at a very specific location just when the black flies are in the larval stage. Temperature days must be monitored along with water levels and flow rates of the rivers where the black flies hatch. These conditions change every year based on snow depths and melt rates. Each spring they must be tested so the bacteria can be introduced at the exact location up stream. To be effective, it must flow to the black fly nesting sites in the correct mixture and at the correct time, where it is ingested. The crystal formation of Bti cuts the gut of the larva to kill it. Timing is critical.
The nest management experiments proposed by Necedah will attempt to adjust the birds to the existing habitat instead of adjusting the habitat to suit the cranes. Plus it will have no impact on the black flies, which are an important component of the wetland ecosystem, providing food for bats, dragonflies, frogs, trout, other waterborne insects, and birds such as hummingbirds, swallows and many warbler species that rely on the pesky insects to feed their young each spring.
Collecting eggs from half of the early nests will hopefully encourage more renesting. It will also salvage more of the eggs that would normally be lost. Those salvaged eggs will be incubated at ICF and Patuxent and be used to increase the number of chicks that are released using the DAR and UL methods. In fact, some may be used to augment the Louisiana project.
Although this spring will likely be late, the collection of eggs just before the black fly bloom will mean several eggs of the same age will be sent to the breeding centers. To handle that influx at Patuxent, they have asked for more help. In addition to Brooke and Geoff, we will provide another intern this year.
Caleb Fairfax will be joining us again this season but he is not finished with his current job in Alaska until mid May.
WCEP has asked OM to assist with monitoring of the birds that return to the White River/Horicon area so we will be opening our base camp early. Richard Van Heuvelen will be starting around April 1st to train and organize a team of volunteers. They will keep tabs on the cranes until mid-May when Caleb will take over.
Predicting the success of a breeding season is like trying to forecast the weather or maybe even picking lottery numbers. Unfortunately, until the season is underway, we will have no idea if we will be allocated 6 birds or 16. If we have more than 10 or 12, we will have to increase the size of our facilities at White River. Unfortunately that requires permits which take longer to write, submit and be approved, than it does to build the pens.
Wildlife Area manager, Jim Holzwart applied for the permits and we had another wet pen depression dug before the ground thawed. That way, no damage was done to the runway from the excavator or the trucks that hauled away the dirt. In the spring, the finish landscaping will be completed with a smaller machine and we will build another wet and dry pen if it is needed. If not, we can leave it fallow until next season.
Now all we need it for the ice to melt so the birds that have already returned to the White River area will have a safe place to roost at night.