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
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.