EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION NESTING UPDATE

As a result of an aerial survey conducted April 2nd by WI DNR pilot Bev Paulan, we have more news about nesting activity in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP).

Bev noted that none of the pairs sighted last week, “were near the nest they had.” She spotted pair 38-08 & 3-07 walking along a tree line not far from their nest. Confirmed is a nest belonging to 28-08 & 5-10 with 28-08 seen standing on it.

Also with nests are 12-02 & 19-04 with 19-04 seen on the nest, and at another location, 33-07 & 5-09 were observed swapping places on their nest. (Photos compliments of Bev Paulan)

In her report Bev said, “Several birds were northwest of Volk Field, namely: 11-09 & 15-09, 38-09 & 34-09, 7-09, 4-08, 27-10 and 10-09. I physically saw seven birds but heard  eight [via radio receiver] and I am guessing that 17-03, 26-07, and 17-07 were nearby. 2-11 is still at her previous marsh location with her entourage of Sandhills.”

NESTING OFFICIALLY UNDERWAY!

On the aerial survey conducted March 26th by Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev Paulan, the Eastern Migratory Population’s first nesting pair of the 2012 season was found and photographed. (Aerial photo taken by Bev.)

Incubation has started for this pair consisting of 3-07 and DAR38-08* on their nest located on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. More pairs have been observed building nests, but no other actual nesting activity has been confirmed.

FAA GRANTS EXEMPTION

Late Friday afternoon an email message chimed into my Inbox and changed everything. The FAA issued a rule-making decision granting an exemption allowing Operation Migration to fly.

A process like this can take as long as three months or better, and even then, granting an exemption only happens when the agency feels the petitioner has satisfied two primary criteria.

One of those requirements is that it must have benefit to the American people. We answered that question by first talking about the birds and how WCEP now has a population of Whooping cranes migrating in the eastern flyway where none existed for over one hundred years. Then we outlined the education opportunities that provides, like the millions of students reached by Journey North, and the unprecedented media coverage from around the world.

You, our supporters and the public, also answered that question by adding your names to petitions, writing to political representatives, and providing your support when we most needed it. We will be forever grateful.

The second criterion is safety and it was not as easy to satisfy. The only aviation license that allows a pilot to be paid for flying is a commercial rating. After a person has earned that certificate, they can add endorsements, like approval to fly multi engine aircraft or float planes. Unfortunately there is no endorsement for the weight-shift aircraft we currently fly.

Currently our pilots hold Light Sport Aircraft certificates and the FAA has required us to upgrade to Private licenses. That means we will have to log some hours of dual time flying with an instructor before undergoing both a written and a flight test. Recognizing that will take time, the FAA has allowed us until the beginning of this year’s migration to comply.

They have also required that our pilots have at least 250 hours of time in a trike. That is the minimum time needed to qualify for a commercial license, but an easy one for us to meet because we all have more than a thousand hours logged and some of us are almost up to 3000.

Of course the other safety factor is the aircraft itself. There are two classes of aircraft within the Light Sport category. The type we have are called Experimental, and are owner maintained, which means we can do all the work that is needed to keep them flying. The other class is called Special, and those aircraft are used for flight instruction – one of the only types of commercial flying allowed in Sport Light Aircraft. This class of aircraft must be maintained by an FAA licensed mechanic and there must be accurate records kept of the work that is done. The FAA has required that we switch over to Special Light Sport Aircraft (S-LSA).

Most of the S-LSAs available are designed to withstand the rigors of pilot flight training and are heavy. That means they fly faster than ours, and in fact, too fast to lead birds. We will have to work with a manufacturer to re-design an aircraft to be lighter and fly slower yet still fit into the Special category. Acknowledging that will not be a simple task, the FAA has given us until 2014 to comply. In the meantime we will have our current aircraft inspected every 100 hours to ensure they are airworthy.

As you can imagine this exemption brings great relief. Sunday is the beginning of April and the deadline our WCEP partners gave us to obtain a favorable ruling in order to be allocated birds for a 2012 ultralight-led migration.

We are very grateful to everyone for all the support we received, and to the FAA for understanding how important this project is to conservation of Whooping cranes – and to the thousands of people who follow it.

It is easy to be critical of a large government agency, but the FAA is in charge of ensuring safety in something inherently dangerous. That is a serious responsibility. To us, they were professional, cooperative, diligent, and yet understanding. We want to thank the FAA and all the people responsible for this decision and for their contribution, not only to safety but to conservation.

2012 PAIRS LINE UP

Again we have to thank Wisconsin DNR pilot, Bev Paulan – this time for the list of 31 pairs in the Eastern Migratory Population.

As you look at the numbers below, keep in mind that some pairs consist of one or more very young cranes so to expect much in the way of fertile eggs much less chicks would not be very realistic. At the same time, there are a good number of mature pairs, including some that are experienced nesters, so… As Bev said yesterday, “fingers crossed”. (* = female, NFT = non functional transmitter)

Here’s the line-up – listed by age of the female:

HATCH YEAR PAIR NUMBERS
2002 13-02 & 18-02*
2003 03-04 & 09-03*
  11-03NFT & 12-03
  09-05 & 13-03*NFT
2004 05-05NFT & 15-04*NFT
  12-02 & 19-04*
2005 01-04 & 08-05*
  08-04NFT & 19-05*
2006 10-03 & W1-06*
2007 16-02 & 16-07*NFT
  10-09 & 17-07*NFT
  12-05 & 22-07*
  04-08 & 26-07*NFT
  07-07 & 39-07*
  02-04 & 46-07*NFT
2008 14-08 & 24-08*
  03-07NFT & 38-08*
2009 16-04 & 04-09*
  33-07 & 05-09*
  17-03NFT & 07-09*
  11-02NFT & 08-09*
  01-01 & 14-09*
  11-09 & 15-09*
  27-06 & 26-09*
  41-09 & 32-09*
  38-09 & 34-09*
  06-09 & 35-09*
  18-03 & 36-09*
  24-09 & 42-09*
2010 28-08 & 5-10*
1-10 & 6-10*

 

You might want to keep this list so that once nesting is in full swing and eggs are ‘on the ground’ you can keep score.

EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION NEWS

This news just in from Bev Paulan, Wisconsin DNR pilot who completed a Whooping crane survey flight on Monday.

Bev told us, “During my crane survey flight yesterday, I found this lonely bird hanging out with a bunch of Sandhills. No working transmitter, no leg bands and some brown feathers. The general consensus is that I found the little runaway, 2-11. She was in a marsh in Adams County where last year we had a pair nest.”

Also found on the aerial survey was 38-08 who was sitting on a nest. She said that 9-05 & 13-03 were almost finished building their nest and that 27-07 & 12-05 looked to be just starting nest construction.

Altogether Bev located 31 pairs, of which at least three consist of a crane from the 2010 hatch year and a few more from the 2009 generation. Bev said, “I am not holding out a lot of hope for those young birds to nest successfully, but even so, practice makes perfect.”

She witnessed was a short vignette as she surveyed the Mead Wildlife Area. The mate of female 5-10 was chasing off Sandhills, an exercise that produced “quite an aerial dogfight” before the Sandhill disengaged and flew off into the woods.

Thanks for the news and the photo Bev!

FLORIDA NON-MIGRATORY POPULATION

Marty Folk, with Avian Research for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides the latest news on the Florida non-migratory population of Whooping cranes.

So far they have had one chick hatch from one nest (now about 11 days old) and have another nest that is currently active.

Marty said, “We have five other pairs in the population, but low water levels may prevent them from nesting. Drought conditions, which have plagued Florida for about the last 13 years, continue. This year we are wrapping up our study of nesting in both Whooping cranes and Florida Sandhill cranes, collecting considerable data on all aspects of nesting, but with a focus on behavior of the birds during incubation. It is an exciting study and we are making some interesting discoveries.”

For the first time, a data logger was successfully introduced to a Whooping crane nest. The device allows remote monitoring and avoids the negative effects of repeated nest checks. The pre-programmed instrument is used to detect such things as temperature change, giving researchers an indication of when the parent is on/off the nest. Such valuable information collected by Florida’s researchers can be used to inform the scientists and biologists involved in other Whooping crane projects through analysis of the data collected throughout the nesting cycle.

POWERLINE STRIKES

Birds and power lines do not work well together. Especially when power lines are situated adjacent wetlands.

An aerial power line inspection team is installing bird diverters along a transmission line just north of Billings, Montana in order to prevent the deaths of thousands of birds.

The line crosses a 3,000-acre wetland, which attracts as many as 100,000 waterfowl and shore birds. The birds have trouble seeing two of the wires on the line that are used to divert lightning strikes.

Haverfield Aviation has been hired to install FireFly I fixed bird diverters, which are plastic reflectors with blocks of orange, green and phosphorescent material that glows in the dark. The reflectors are attached to a spring-loaded device that clamps onto the transmission line and are spaced about 60 feet apart, allowing the birds to better see the power line and avoid flying into it.

The power line was installed in the late 1970s, around the time that birds started to die off from the bacterial disease botulism and from striking the line. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials picked up 65,000 dead birds from 55 species during that time.

Agency officials theorized that the botulism outbreak may have been caused by birds hitting the lines, falling into the water and dying. The dead birds provided the botulism bacteria with a protein source that let it flourish. Maggots that fed on the dead birds and were eaten by live birds helped spread the outbreak. (Read More)

State officials noted that bird deaths are climbing once again, leading the department to work with NorthWestern Energy, which owns the line.

To see a video clip of workers installing the diverters, visit this link.

EMP UPDATE

Eva Szyszkoski, ICF/WCEP Tracking Field Manager provided the following report for WCEP partners this week:

Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period was 107 cranes (54 males and 53 females). Estimated distribution at the end of the report period or last record included 70 whooping cranes in Wisconsin, 4 in Indiana, 9 in Alabama, 4 in Tennessee, 4 in Florida, 14 at unknown locations, and 2 long term missing.

2011 Cohort: Of the eight 2011 Direct Autumn Release juveniles, two (#15-11 and #18-11) are in Marquette County, Wisconsin, two (#17-11 and #20-11) remain at the Hiwassee WR in Tennessee, one (#14-11) is in LaPorte/St. Joseph Counties, Indiana, one (#19-11) was last reported in Fayette County, Illinois, on 9 February, one (#16-11) was last reported in Jackson County, Indiana, on 8 March but has left the area, and one (#13-11) was last detected on autumn migration in northern Illinois on 29 November.

The juvenile (#2-11) that broke off from the ultralight led migration on 21 October was last confirmed at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee on 16 February.

The nine remaining juveniles in the ultralight cohort remain at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama.

SAME SONG – DIFFERENT RHYTHM

Yes, the chicks are still here, but the pre-migration shuffle has begun. It started three days ago when the rhythm of things began to change ever so slightly. It’s almost imperceptible at first, something felt more than seen, like aging or a familiar song played in a different key, but you just know there’s something…. different. Then as the days pass, it builds, gains momentum, grows louder until one morning it happens; the connection with this place is severed and the chicks burst skyward in a raucous spiral until both altitude and direction are achieved and migration begins. Until then, we wait.

The question, “When are those birds going to leave?” has been replaced with “What are you going to do if they don’t leave?” To which I reply “Well, never in the last ten years have they not left.” The rough date range has been the 21st of March to the 14th of April if I remember correctly, and keep in mind there are still adults in Florida that haven’t begun migration yet. (Adult birds, that is). But yes, it is a little nerve racking.

Funny how worries reverse themselves on you – I mean, every morning for months you wake up worrying that that the chicks might not be there when you go out to check and now you wake up worrying that they will. But of course, worrying does give life purpose. As the Bard said, “I worry, therefore I am.”

“So what are you going to do if they don’t go?”

That’s easy…. and can be answered with three letters. “UPS!” – Stay tuned… Film at 11.

WOOD BUFFALO/ARANSAS FLOCK UPDATE

It appears that we may never know if the Aransas – Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes reached the hoped for 300 birds during 2011– 2012. The weather has been a large factor. First, an unknown number of Whooping cranes did not arrive at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Then some traveled around in Texas counties near Aransas Refuge while others spent the winter in Kansas and Nebraska. And weather had a crippling effect on attempts to count the whoopers that did winter on Aransas Refuge.

According to Aransas personnel, “High winds and low cloud cover impeded the census flights scheduled during late February, allowing for only two of the three scheduled census flights. Those flights were conducted on February 25 and 26, 2012. Preliminary data analyses indicated the population of cranes within the surveyed area was 196. Although lower than the previous 245 estimate, the difference is not statistically significant and most likely the result of limited flying time. Also, this number does not reflect whooping cranes outside the survey area, including those that have dispersed.

Radio-marked birds and sightings of whooping cranes from the flyway indicate the birds have begun their northern migration back to Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada where they nest exclusively. Some biologists believe that this earlier than usual northern migration is also due to the unseasonal warm weather. Depending on the weather, biologists hope to conduct another census flight before the end of the month.

Refuge officials also issued an update on the status of whooping cranes that died during the past several months. A report from the first whooper carcass (recovered Dec. 7, 2011) was issued from the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) and it indicates the bird had a systemic blood infection. This type of systemic infection has been known to cause death. The refuge is still waiting on the final report from the second carcass (recovered January 18, 2012). A third carcass of a radio-collared bird was recovered (Feb. 29, 2012) and sent to the NWHC in Madison, WI for necropsy.

Some good weather news relating to the whoopers is that, as of March 14, the monthly precipitation totals for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge are .85 inches and salinity levels in San Antonio Bay are recorded as 19.7 parts per thousand. With salinity levels below 20 parts per thousand, conditions in the marsh are normalizing and food production for the birds improving. Even so, the refuge has still not returned to pre-drought conditions and biologists remain concerned.

Since the last Aransas Refuge update, the refuge conducted an additional prescribed burn, raising the winter’s total to 12,310 acres of habitat. The refuge’s fire program hopes to conduct a final burn in the next few weeks on Matagorda Island but the changing weather makes it uncertain. Despite one burn remaining, all of the burns planned in areas whooping cranes would likely use have been completed and were successful.

Joining the Whooping Crane Conservation Association is easy and your membership directly benefits Whooping cranes. With your $10 membership, you will also receive the WCCA newsletter.

PLEASE VOICE YOUR SUPPORT

When we first started flying back in the 1980’s, the aircraft we flew were known as ultralights. Back then they were completely different from anything else in the air. As the name indicates, they were built to be super light, in the 200 to 400 pound range and were generally powered by go-cart or even chainsaw engines. Occasionally referred to as ‘flying lawn chairs’ or ‘lawn darts’ by conventional pilots, they were low and slow and so different from traditional airplanes that no one took them seriously. They fit into an unregulated category called ‘ultralight’ and as long as we stayed out of controlled airspace and didn’t cause any problems, we were pretty much on our own.

As safety and technology improved, ultralights became more popular among recreational pilots. They were cheaper to buy than Pipers and Cessna’s and could be maintained by the owners rather than by expensive, FAA approved mechanics.

Eventually an entire industry emerged that produced innovative flying machines of all sorts. Trikes evolved first in Europe, where flying conventional aircraft was more expensive so hang gliding became popular. A trike is really an appendage to hold the pilot and the engine suspended from a beefed up hang glider wing.

After thirty or so years of development, the use of space age materials and very innovative design improvements, modern ultralights are state of the art machines. They are safe, reliable, fast and a fraction of the cost of a conventional aircraft. Ultralights have circumnavigated the globe and flown on every continent including Antarctica.

The increase in their popularity meant that ultralights could not continue to be unregulated and in 2008 the FAA developed a new category called Light Sport Aircraft. This designation was widened to include enclosed aircraft with two seats and speeds up to 120 knots.

The problem for us is that the Light Sport category was designed for recreation only. Pilots are not allowed to fly them for hire, nor can the aircraft be used for the furtherance of a business. Unfortunately there is no category for us. Our aircraft are too heavy to qualify for the new definition of ultralights and they are not certified so they do not fit in with aircraft like Cessna’s. The same is true for our pilot certificates. Only a commercial license would allow us to fly for hire but there is no endorsement in that category that would allow a commercial pilot to fly a weight-shift controlled aircraft like our trikes.

We are working closely with the FAA to find a permanent solution that will allow us to continue with this project. To that end, yesterday an exemption was posted and is now available for public comment. If you are in support of our efforts to safeguard the Whooping crane and continue the flights we began in 2001, we urge you to lend your voice and encourage the FAA to grant this most recent request as quickly as they did in early January.

You can find the exemption document (.pdf) and submit your comments at this link – Thank you, once again for your support!

NORTH – SOUTH

News from the North: Necedah National Wildlife Refuge reports that they have now confirmed 7 pairs of whooping cranes on the refuge as well as 4 individual cranes. One pair has been visible on Rynearson Pool #1 from the observation tower and visitor center.

The International Crane Foundation reported yesterday that on Tuesday evening they received a roost PTT location for Direct Autumn Release (DAR) Whooping Crane #15-11 near ICF headquarters in Sauk County, Wisconsin! #15-11 wintered at the Wheeler NWR in Alabama with fellow DAR juvenile #18-11 and two-year-old ultralight-led male #19-09. Eva Szyszkoski, ICF/WCEP Tracking Field Manager, headed out yesterday to check the location. She was able to detect both DAR birds (#15 and #18) north of the roost location before the battery in her receiver died! From what she heard, she believes they were likely in flight and the weather yesterday was nice for flying! While she was not able to confirm whether #19-09 was still with the two DAR juveniles or not, she assumed he was.

And now news from the south: During a brief chat with Brooke yesterday, he reported that all 9 juvenile cranes are doing well and going about their daily business of foraging and roosting and don’t appear to be getting ready to go anywhere anytime soon.

And even further south – in Leon County, Florida, Lou Kellenberger tells us that the two now-adult Whooping cranes (#’s 11 & 15-09*) are still at their selected winter habitat just north of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge where they spent their first winter. Lou shared the following images with us so that we could share them with you.

CERTAINTY

Sometimes it seems like every season has its very own, very special question. “What do you want for Christmas?”, or “Who do you think is going to win the Super Bowl?” or “File your taxes yet?” For me, up until lately, people have been coming up, poking me in the stomach and asking, “And… when is the baby due!” Turns out I’m one of the few creatures in nature that actually gains weight DURING migration instead of gaining it FOR migration. Who needs to see their feet anyway! But seasons change and the question now is the all too familiar, ”When are the birds going to leave?”

Now back in my school days, knowing the question before the test gave me time to prepare the correct answer. We called it Cheating! But there’s no Cheat Sheet to save me here, no Cliff Notes to lean on. Just cold, hard uncertainty…the kind that forces you to raise your arms and shrug so many times throughout the day that your shoulders ache at night. The response is clearly disappointing and unsatisfying to the inquisitor; not at all the answer they were looking for. This, despite the fact that in the literary scheme of things, a simple “I don’t know” lies somewhere between a poem and a prayer. But it’s OK. We’re all used to asking questions to which there are no answers. It fact, it surpasses baseball as the national pastime.

Of course, the question does tempt one to try to fill the void of uncertainty with a little humor and reach for a laugh with answers like, “Wait here while I go ask them.” Or “Next Tuesday morning at exactly 9:36 sharp.” Secure in the knowledge that sometimes a laugh or even just a smile is better than no laugh or smile at all…and much more fun than “I wish I knew.” But not always. After all, we live in a world that demands certainty, worships it in fact, regardless of all its inherent uncertainties, and although we are loath to admit it, certainty is the foundation upon which we construct our lives. This, despite the fact that the last words heard from the Captain of the Titanic were, “Oh Lord, forgive us for our certainties!” He knew, as do we, of its exquisite intoxication; that it’s the cheapest drug there is… if you don’t count the consequences. Sadly, my own grasp of the stuff has faded with age. But like the Zen Master said to the grasshopper, “Hey man, sometimes ya just gotta believe.”

“No… seriously! When are those birds going to leave?” Well, some folks were sure our chicks would leave with the other whoopers (not). Others were positive they would leave with the sandhills (not not); forgetting, maybe, that comparing our chicks to either is like expecting an apple to roll like an orange.( I mean, how many times have you sat next to a fruit basket and heard an apple say to a grapefruit, “Let’s roll!” ) Still others believe without a shadow of a doubt the chicks will do what the chicks in past years have done at St. Marks and Chass and leave after the whoopers and sandhills, sometime between the end of the third week in March and the end of the second week in April, possibly ratcheting this up a bit allowing for the unusually early spring.

But if we can be certain of anything, it is that Mother Nature is the consummate magician with an infinitely deep bag of tricks with which to dazzle and surprise and fill our lives with unending wonder. Perhaps rather than spending our time trying to figure out just how she does the trick, we should just kick back, put our feet up and enjoy the performance.

“But…when ARE those birds going to leave?”

“Only the Shadow knows…”

HOME AGAIN – ALREADY

If you are not in the habit of visiting Journey North’s excellent website, (updated regularly by OM Board of Directors alumni, Jane Duden) then this is the perfect time of year to adopt the practice.

When we checked the Journey North site yesterday we learned that two unidentified cranes from the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) had completed their Spring migration back to Wisconsin by February 28th. And it appears that others in the EMP likely aren’t too far behind. The pair consisting of 1-04 and 8-05 along with Wild1-10 were in Douglas County, IL as February drew to a close. At the same time, the North Carolina wintering pair of 28-08 and 5-10 had made it as far north as Bartholomew County, IN.

Already back on their summering grounds?!? Completing their northward journey in February gives a whole new meaning to ‘spring‘ migration. Between all the short-stopping by the EMP on their journey south and the evidence of early departures for their return trip, this is undoubtedly going to be a year for the record books.

WOOD BUFFALO – ARANSAS POPULATION UPDATE

As of March 1st, Aransas NWR officials were still waiting for the final report of the necropsy on the second chick carcass they sent to Madison, Wisconsin’s National Wildlife Health Center. Weather was a challenge as they conducted the February aerial surveys, but the census numbers from those flights should be available soon.

As of the end of February, almost 4 inches of rainfall helped to reduced salinity levels in the bays at Aransas; good news for wintering Whooping cranes. In an effort to alleviate the low sources of food for Whoopers, the refuge conducted more prescribed burns with a total of almost 11,000 of the planned 14,000 acres now being burned.

It seems the refuge continues to get questions regarding providing supplemental food for Whooping cranes. In response, the refuge posted this statement…

“At this time, the refuge is concerned about the negative impacts of supplemental feeding. Previous efforts to supplemental feed were not considered successful as only a small portion of the birds actually fed on the shelled corn.

Whooping cranes are territorial and do not naturally gather together to feed. Encouraging them to do so changes their natural behavior; it also creates greater opportunities to transmit diseases, parasites, and makes them more vulnerable to predators.

Furthermore, when left out in warm and moist environments, like coastal marsh areas, corn can grow Aspergillis molds. Aflatoxins, which are produced by the molds, can be lethal to Whooping cranes and other wildlife. Where Whooping cranes may be present, landowners should be aware of the risks that aflatoxins pose. If corn is being used for feeding other wildlife in areas where whooping cranes may be present, we highly recommend purchasing aflatoxin-free corn.”

Read the full summary of the Aransas Refuge report on the website of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association(WCCA).