Anyone that works in this Whooping crane business will tell you there are extreme high’s and extreme low’s. That’s life in general I suppose but it seems to be magnified somewhat when dealing with a species whose numbers are fewer than 700.
As Jo-Anne mentioned yesterday, she and I had been charged with monitoring and recording observations about crane number 32-16 – both pre and post release. This may not seem crucial but it’s something we take very seriously and it’s a responsibility that few are given.
After quite a few hours of associating with yearlings 10 and 11-15, at noon on Saturday, Sept. 17th, Dr. Olsen arrived with Joe to release ‘our’ young Whooping crane. It’s amazing how attached one can get to a bird that we had been watching intently for 48 hours. Joe and Dr. Olsen discussed how best to approach and release the youngster without flushing the two yearling Whoopers and they decided since 10 and 11-15 were quite accustomed to the costume that Joe should approach the pen in costume. They are, after all, two cranes of the last ever cohort to fly with our aircraft.
It was amazing to watch the reaction of the two large white cranes when they spotted the costume. They were at this time approximately 500 meters from the pen and they immediately popped their heads up and began walking purposefully across the field toward Joe. If they could talk, I bet they would ask “What took you so long?”!
Without wasting any time, Joe turned off the electric fencer, rolled back the topnet and swung open one of the large pen panels, which would allow 32-16 freedom for the first time.
At 12:11 she exited – took two steps – and was airborne! So airborne that she actually flew past the two adults before landing just over a small hill – out of sight.
Watching her exit the pen and taste flight and freedom for the first time was one of the extreme high’s I will always remember.
We held our collective breath to see what would happen next and very soon the two adults reversed course and began heading in the direction we had last seen the chick land. Before they got too far, we saw the chick come walking out from behind the rise and head toward the adults.
At first it seemed they weren’t too pleased. There was a bit of a scuffle, which resulted in the youngster flying off but only long enough to do a quick circuit around the field before returning again.
Introducing the chick to the pecking order?
We watched and recorded our observations for the rest of the day… all the time, wondering what would happen at roost time. Our little girl 32-16, after all, had only recently discovered that she had wings and what they were for. Would she follow the two adults when they flew off to roost?
At 6:45 that evening, all three cranes launched into the air and flew north, into the wind and over the pen field.
They turned and headed west, then south… we held our breath… then she landed in the field she and the others had just launched from. The adults? They continued flying southwest to their roost site.
It broke our hearts to have to leave 32-16 out alone for the night but we had no other options. Reluctantly, we left to make the long drive back to camp and didn’t get much sleep before we were up at 4:30 to head back and try to find her.
Brooke and Colleen had arrived at 6am, before our two adult whoopers showed up, to tear down the release pen and move it to another location. We were all eager to learn how the chick had fared on her own through the night, so we all listened intently to our receivers for the beeps indicating which direction we would find her in.
The beeps seemed to be coming from the field we last saw her land in so, as the sun ever so slowly rose, all four of us stared at the field, waiting to see that lovely fawn color, which at this time of year seems to blend in with everything. Eventually, at 6:42, we noticed movement and all breathed a huge sigh of relief when we saw her upright and walking just behind some tall grass. She continued south until eventually she was behind a tree and out of sight.
The pen tear-down was put on hold as, at 6:52, the two yearling Whooping cranes landed and began walking into the field where the chick was. At 6:56 they began alarm calling and we grabbed our binoculars to see if we could determine what the cause was. We spotted a coyote slinking into the cornfield.
Brooke and Colleen left soon after to go set up another release pen a few counties away and Jo-Anne and I continued our post-release observations for 32-16. Unfortunately, she didn’t appear from behind the treeline again on Sunday. Because the other two whoopers were there, we couldn’t walk into the field to look for her in case we spooked them off.
We still had a signal on her so we hoped she was just foraging behind the trees in the “U” shaped field but I think we both had a big knot in our stomachs and feared the worst. It was decided that we would walk the field very early the next day before the yearlings arrived.
The very generous property owners had offered up accommodations for Jo and I so that we wouldn’t have to make the long drive back in the dark. We were able to be on site before sunrise and with a not quite full moon providing light, so we began walking in with the receiver and antenna. The sun was rising quickly, which helped, and after about 15 minutes we found our little crane – unfortunately, she was dead.
There are a lot of thoughts that swim through your head when you make such a discovery. None of them are pleasant but we had work to do. Take pictures of the scene, which could help to determine the cause of death. Were there any tracks in the area around her? Drag marks? Scattered feathers? What is the condition of the body? Take pictures, get coordinates, note anything remarkable. The entire time my inner voice kept screaming “it was going so damned well! She was the first one placed in a release pen to have adults pay attention to. She was the first one released. It appeared she was associating with the adults. Why? Why?”
She appeared to be in very good condition. There was a single feather approximately 3 feet from where she lay and nothing else was out of place, indicating she had not been scavenged. It seemed as if she had been hock-sitting and simply fell forward. I took more than enough photos of her and of the surrounding area for the National Wildlife Health Lab then Jo and I took her to Madison for a necropsy. Thankfully, they carried it out immediately and preliminary results showed two canid puncture wounds under her wing and internal hemorrhaging.
Very likely, the coyote we had seen the previous day had grabbed her and then perhaps was scared off by the two yearling cranes alarm calling. The location where we found her was roughly 12 feet from where we spotted the coyote.
This was definitely one of the extreme low’s for me…