Dr. Richard Urbanek has worked with cranes for most of his career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Well before this eastern population began, Richard was experimenting with Sandhill cranes in hopes of eventually beginning a reintroduction of Whooping cranes. He was a biologist at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I first met Richard in 1995 when he came to Canada to give us tips on raising Sandhill cranes back when we first started. When the Eastern Migratory Population began and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was established, Richard was the likely choice for lead biologist and he moved to Necedah.
In 2005, Richard began what eventually grew into the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) project and he was the first researcher to suspect that Black flies were causing nest abandonment. He is an expert tracker, handler and for many years, was responsible for all of the WCEP transmitters and ID bands.
Banding birds means they must be captured and handled, which is in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. To do this legally, a permit is required for specific species and the process is managed by the Bird Banding Lab located at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The permits are valid for three years and some states require additional permits, but it is not simply a matter of applying. To protect wild birds, experience is mandatory.
Dr. Urbanek retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service last year but he still holds a banding permit for Whooping cranes. After spending a lifetime dedicated to the continued existence of a species, his passion didn’t end with his retirement.
The VHF tracking devices that we use to monitor the birds only last an average of three years, which is impressive considering they send out a signal constantly in all kinds of conditions. Consequently, a large percentage of the cranes in the eastern flyway don’t have working transmitters. Operation Migration has volunteered a team to opportunistically capture them and replace those non-functional devices. Brooke is adept at this task but does not have a permit, so Richard has volunteered with Operation Migration. This allows him to continue the work he loves, gives Brooke some help and provides us with a permit.
Recently Richard travelled to Goose Pond FWA in Indiana to meet the new manager, check on cranes and see if any captures were possible. Brooke is still in Florida, so he had to recruit some volunteers to help. He recorded the confirmed location of twenty-one cranes and made eleven capture attempts.
Often the birds were too deep in the marsh to have even a reasonable chance. At other times, wild birds close to the cranes flushed at Richard’s approach, causing the Whooping cranes to also take off. He did manage to capture 7-11 and replace a dead transmitter. Catching cranes that are wary of people is not easy, especially in open territory where they can easily walk or fly away. One successful capture in 5 or 6 days is a good showing.