The Plan for 2016

When the Fish and Wildlife Service ended the UL release method this past January, their decision didn’t come with a plan for the alternate technique. Timing was also an issue. The face-to-face meetings of the WCEP members was originally scheduled for September of 2015 but it was postponed by the service until late January, a few months before chick hatching season begins.

The WCEP membership includes some very talented people from a variety of fields but the decision making process can be time consuming. When there are fifty people, nine agencies and five operational teams involved, things can get cumbersome. With a mandate that all future releases must maximize chick/parent association, the first question to answer was how that would affect the captive breeding centers that must provide the chicks.

Captive breeding pairs often produce more than the normal two eggs. The first clutch is taken as well as the second or even more if the pair keep laying. However, in order to produce parent reared birds, some of those pairs must be taken out of production so they can sit on eggs instead of just banging them out as fast as they can. That means the normal production at Patuxent and ICF is limited, depending on how many pairs they have to take offline. All this is well and good but Louisiana also gets their birds from the same captive breeding facilities and the Recovery Team doesn’t want the needs of WCEP to restrict the allocation to Louisiana. So far, Louisiana still wants costume reared birds so that makes things slightly easier.

There is another factor at play here. This is the third, and final year of the forced re-nesting study at Necedah. Just prior to the anticipated emergence of Black flies, they are going to pull the eggs from half of the active nests in hopes those pairs will try again. That second clutch is generally laid after the black flies have run out their short lives as biting adults. All the success we have had with wild breeding so far has been the result of late or second nest attempts, so this study is designed to see if the egg laying times can be manipulated.

Biting black flies cover eggs, which have been abandoned by adults at Necedah NWR. Photo: Richard Urbanek

Biting black flies cover eggs, which have been abandoned by adults at Necedah NWR. Photo: Richard Urbanek

All of this leaves WCEP with limited time, limited capacity from the breeding centers and a limited number of eggs from Necedah. And that translates to no more than fifteen parent reared birds this year. As we have said before, this is a transition year.

The next question WCEP had to deal with was the where, when and how protocol for the 2016 releases.  Because of their existing parent-reared program and the larger number of captive pairs at Patuxent, they can provide up to 12 PR chicks for release. The birds will be transported to the release areas in late August or September. They will be housed in temporary pens for a short time and released near adult Whooping cranes.

BTW. Congratulations to Marianne Wellington (ICF) and Jonathan Male (Patuxent) for coordinating the many Rearing and Release Team calls to make this happen.

The primary targets for releasing chicks are the adult pairs that have lost their young, either to having abandoned their nest or to depredation after they hatched. It is hoped that these birds will still be influenced by the hormones that drive nesting, nurturing and defensive behavior. Following the Recovery Team direction, none of these PR chicks will be released with pairs using Necedah because we don’t want them to grow up and face the same black fly issue. However, there are some nesting pairs just outside of the black fly range at Necedah.

The second target will be young, inexperienced pairs that have failed at their first attempt to breed. There are a couple of hopefuls in the Wisconsin Rectangle but we will have to see how the season plays out. Lastly, if there are any PR chicks left, they will be released near single or groups of unpaired adult Whooping cranes.

Releasing fifteen individual birds, one-by-one between the Rectangle and the area around Necedah will take a lot of manpower to monitor and manage. OM will assist as needed, plus track some of those birds as they move south. This spring we will be tracking and monitoring pairs around White River and Horicon to see if we actually do have some young pairs and what happens to any eggs they might produce. In addition, we will assist in replacing non-functioning tracking devices. There is a backlog of birds whose transmitters have failed or will soon. That makes tracking them almost impossible. Those birds need to be captured and their devices replaced.

As the 2015 cohort of UL birds close in on Wisconsin, our team is following suit. Brooke will be heading north this weekend and Heather and I will head out to Wisconsin later this week. It is going to be an interesting season. If we are lucky, there may be a nesting pair to watch at White River but it will also be a change in vantage points. Rather than watch the behavior of birds in the pen every day we will spend more time watching the wild, post release birds — and we will take you along with us.

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  1. David Bachmann April 19, 2016 4:08 pm

    Thank you, Joe and Heather for the post about ‘The Plan’. Why are the Louisiana birds being costume reared when the mandate states that all future releases must maximize chick/parent association?

    • Heather Ray April 19, 2016 6:47 pm

      A very good question and one we do not know the answer to. Perhaps it’s best to ask Fish and Wildlife Service.

      • David Bachmann April 19, 2016 8:55 pm

        Heather, thanks for the reply. I just now emailed FWS and am waiting to hear back.

  2. Catherine Wohlfeil April 12, 2016 10:52 pm

    Each step is one away from extinction and one toward restoration of these beautiful winged souls. Start your engines Captain! We’re on board!

  3. Joan Poole April 12, 2016 1:37 am

    Thanks for bringing an update. I do pray success will continue through whatever methods will have to use to continue with success to the progress of the precious whoopers. Thank you Joe and all of OM who have spent years working so hard for preserve the eastern flock of whooping cranes..

  4. Madeline April 11, 2016 10:35 pm

    Kudos Joe and the OM team, the fact that you continue to give the cranes your heart and soul demonstrates that this is all about the birds. With your leadership, we will be here for you and for the birds.

    One question: In past years, you made sure to take the chicks to Wisconsin before they started flying (~ July). But if the PR chicks aren’t taken to Wisconsin until late August/early September, I am curious if there’s a possibility that the PR chicks will return to Patuxent (or ICF) instead of the Rectangle or the outskirts of Necedah? That is, might they have already “imprinted” on the Paxutent area?

    Thank you all for all you do, and I still can’t write without needing the Kleenex box.

    • Heather Ray April 12, 2016 5:04 am

      very unlikely. All parent reared chicks released over the past 3 years have been raised at Patuxent and they’ve not attempted to return there.

      • CraniacP April 12, 2016 9:12 am

        Although, at the moment, one might note that the 2015 DAR and PR birds are not showing strong fidelity (loyalty) to their release site(s), compared to the UL birds. Wonder if Madeline’s comment strikes closer to the truth than thought. This certainly is a continuing science experiment, and we learn something new nearly every day with these whoopers!

        • Madeline April 12, 2016 4:32 pm

          Thanks Heather and thanks CraniacP. Looks like we’re in for some nail-biting for the next year or two. Maybe Brooke will write a serial mystery for us! I sure hope I’m wrong. Hoping the parental influence helps with predator-avoidance and that all the PR find good surrogate parents come late August/early September.

  5. Lu Duncan Frank April 11, 2016 9:04 pm

    Thanks so much for your continuing updates on your role in this most worthy project! It will be interesting to hear the about the progress of replacing the transmitters! I will love updates on that! As for the rest; it should be an interesting year. I love all of the work you all do for these magnificent birds and you have our support 1000%! OM, You rock!

  6. Peter Smith April 11, 2016 8:10 pm

    I completely agree with Mollie’s comments. This is going to be a big shift for OM. Know that you have all of us so grateful for all you’ve done, and standing ready to continue our support for you as we move forward.

  7. Marnie Gaede April 11, 2016 5:39 pm

    Thanks for the great update. The OM team deserves a place at the table – your experience and dedication are important elements for the continued success of the Eastern Whooping Crane population.

  8. Emilie Burnett April 11, 2016 3:38 pm

    Good for you Louisiana and Good luck to you.

  9. Mindy April 11, 2016 12:49 pm

    Thank you Joe for sharing some of the plan with all of us. It is the “hanging in limbo” that makes it so hard for you and us to wait. OM team members have unique talents for making the seemingly impossible come to life and I do not doubt for a moment that you have all been hard at work figuring how to do that for this transition. All the other partners in WCEP have such a treasure in OM. Hope they realize what a blessing you guys will be as the plan takes shape and changes. God bless all of know we will be with you and thanks for that!

  10. vannie zychowicz April 11, 2016 12:36 pm

    Thank you so much for the up day on what you’s are planning for 2016 I just love the work you are doing with the whooper cranes to bring more whooper in Wisconsin looking forward of hearing more of then plan and how it’s doing God blesses you all


  11. Carol Phillips April 11, 2016 10:29 am

    Appreciate so much this update. You have a lot of supporters in Florida. We will be keeping up with the cranes, your group too!!

  12. Barb April 11, 2016 10:06 am

    Thanks for the update on the Whoopers. I have not been so lucky in following your efforts for many years. I am, you might say, a fledgling bird watcher and happened upon this sight last Fall quite by accident. Now I am hooked. Your report illustrates that cooperation among agencies is a must if the birds survival will be maintained and allowed to grow in numbers. I just hope the Feds’ egos are not in the way of the Whoopers future.

  13. Nina Lewis April 11, 2016 10:03 am

    I am so very grateful for your on going efforts. I love you all for the work you do. It is only a matter of time when the decision will be reversed and OM will continue with guided training and flights.

  14. Mollie Cook April 11, 2016 10:00 am

    So great to get this update Joe & to know that we Craniacs get to share in the new adventure. We have absolutely no doubts that OM will RISE TO THE CHALLENGE & do what it takes to bring the eastern migratory flock to sustaining numbers.
    No words can convey the appreciation & the gratitude for what you & the team have already accomplished. Blessings as you go forward.

  15. Jim Voris April 11, 2016 9:52 am

    Soldier on you stewards of this triage. So much hope for our wild world is born of your efforts. And hope for the wild affirms our humanity.

  16. Barbara Dobbs April 11, 2016 9:33 am

    Thanks for the update on the emerging new plans. I hear it’s a transition year, and good wishes ahead for all.

  17. acwilliams April 11, 2016 9:27 am

    You have truly made my day. Life without OM was unthinkable and now we will at least have y’all still in our lives and we can watch and learn just as before, just in a different way. Y’all are the heroes of the whooping cranes and time will show how much you mattered. Thank you for all that you have done and will continue to do….


  18. Cheryl N. April 11, 2016 9:14 am

    Thank you for sharing the plan with us. Best of luck in this new process, for the team and the whoopers.

  19. P. Doms April 11, 2016 8:57 am

    Well said, CrabtowneMD~~~~~ ffmn

  20. Lynda Johnston April 11, 2016 8:55 am

    Thanks so much for this update. I’ve been wondering what’s next for OM (my heroes ). I’ll be following closely; may the force be with you!

  21. Lindi Allen April 11, 2016 8:50 am

    Thank you for the report. It will be interesting to see how things work out. I am wishing for the best for all involved.

  22. thunder April 11, 2016 8:49 am

    Like with anything New ~ Its going to be a “Fly by the seat of your pants” adventure. Whatever it takes for the cranes. We will be here for the OM team. Plenty of eyes to help watch the marsh area. You know we are here for you.

    Joe ~ just you saying your taking us with you ~ made my day. Thank you for that!

    So a new season begins ~ Bring it on – Whoop Whoop!

  23. Karen Anne April 11, 2016 8:44 am

    Thanks very much for the update.

    This is all very confusing to me. I am wondering what the numbers are for the Louisiana project; My impression was that hunters were pretty much damaging that beyond viability.

    I still think it was a dreadful shame that the migration project was stopped just when it seemed to be on the cusp of more and more chicks surviving. That was a bad decision by the upper level powers that be, imho. I hope it may be reversed.

  24. Kay Huey April 11, 2016 8:42 am

    As ever, my heart goes with you and the rest of your team. You have achieved so much in such a relatively short time on behalf of these beautiful, head-strong birds. My head shakes, however, at the thought of trying to achieve even more with a limited population base of adult, level-thinking pairs of birds that haven’t wandered off to southern Michigan or who knows where. If I read correctly, there MAY be 15 chicks looking for parental role models. Do you know how many adult pairs outside of Necedah that are looking for chicks to raise?

  25. Sue McCurdy April 11, 2016 8:17 am

    Thank you for including me in all your posts. I have so enjoyed the migration and all the antics of the birds.

  26. Betsy April 11, 2016 8:06 am

    Thank you for the update. I’m looking forward to your updates, especially of the activities involving the older birds. Something tells me Brooke can make a very interesting post about the process of capturing older birds to replace transmitters (the velociraptor post from last year comes to mind).

  27. Carol Santos April 11, 2016 7:51 am

    Thank you for your efforts and the update! As before, we happily go along, flapping our wings!

  28. Shirley Green April 11, 2016 7:21 am

    Thank you for keeping us updated and that you will continue to do so. To me, this raising of whoopers is somewhat confusing, to say the least. I can only hope it will be successful and that the crane population will be stable and grow.

  29. CrabtowneMd April 11, 2016 6:58 am

    Thank you for the update. There are so many moving parts to this plan, that it is a framework for improvisation rather than a definitive plan. I know the OM team are masters of improvisation and very nimble when the situation is fluid. I am sure there will be new adventures and lots of great video. May all go well for the cranes and OM.