More Returnees

Each week, Doug Pellerin travels over several counties to check on Whooping cranes on their summer territories.

Last week he checked on a few cranes in Marquette and Green Lake counties, in addition to a quick check on number 18-11 near Horicon NWR.

Doug was concerned because he wasn’t able to locate parent reared crane number 30-16 so he went back on Saturday, April 1 for another look. Success! He found 30-16 foraging in corn stubble with 2 yr. old Whooping cranes 10 & 11-15!

Whooping cranes 10-15 (F), 11-15 (M) and 30-16 (M) foraging in Green Lake County, WI. Photo: Doug Pellerin

10-15, 11-15 & 30-16 take flight. Photo: Doug Pellerin

Doug sent along some additional details. “30-16 was one of the Parent Reared chicks released last fall and after a short time he was adopted by adult pair 4-12 & 3-14 aka the Royal Couple and spent the rest of the fall foraging around White River Marsh. In early December the three of them took to the skies and headed south for the winter.?

?About a month ago when I was tracking in the marsh I found the three of them back near their regular territory and as I watched them over the next couple of weeks, I noticed 30-16 was close to the Royal Couple but not really close. Last Wednesday when I went to do my weekly tracking duties he was nowhere to be found and I looked everywhere he typically spent time. I grew concerned that he was missing so last Saturday I decided to go over to the marsh again and see if I could find him. I tried tracking through the marsh again with no luck. I decided to expand my search area and eventually found him off the marsh and to my surprise, with 10 & 11-15 foraging in a corn field.
It seems the Royal Couple may have kicked him out of their territory and traditionally that’s what breeding pairs do in the spring.
?
I think it will benefit 30-16 to be with this new pair. They’re not old enough to have any young of their own yet. So I think they can teach him things that a young whooping crane? needs to know to survive in the wild.”

EMP Update

Whooping Crane Update – April 1, 2017 

Below is the most recent update for the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes. During February, most Whooping Cranes began migration and at least one has returned to Wisconsin. A huge thank-you to the staff of Operation Migration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Natural Resources, the International Crane Foundation, and all of the volunteers who help us keep track of the cranes throughout the year. We appreciate your contribution to the recovery of the whooping crane eastern migratory population.

Population Estimate

The current maximum population size is 99 (45 F, 52 M, 2 U). As of 1 April, most Whooping Cranes have completed migration and are in Wisconsin. However, a few have not yet migrated and are in Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida. See map below. A few breeding pairs have begun nest building and a nesting update will be in next month’s report.

2015 Wild Chicks

W10_15 has returned to Wisconsin and was seen alone at Necedah NWR in Juneau County.

W18_15 and male 16-04 have returned to Wisconsin and were seen at Necedah NWR by the end of March.  

Parent-Reared 2015 Cohort

14_15 (F) has returned to Wisconsin and is currently in Juneau County.

20_15 (M) left Saint Martin Parish, LA by 18 March, and has returned to Wisconsin. He is currently in Adams County, WI.

DAR 2015 Cohort

61_15 (F), 63_15 (M), and 67_15 (F) continue to be in Randolph Co, IL.

65_15 (F) was in Will County, IL as of 22 March.

66_15 (F) and 68_15 (F) were last reported in LaPorte County, IN, but have likely moved north.  

UL 2015 Cohort

2_15 (F) left Jasper Co, IN and was with female 28_05 in Marathon County, WI by 19 March.

6_15 (F) and 38-09 left Greene Co, IN and are currently in Juneau County, WI.

8_15 (F) spent all of March in Sumter Co, AL. Note: it appears she began migrating north on 2 April).

10_15 (F), and (presumably) 11_15 (M) left Lasalle Co, IL and migrated to Wisconsin by 26 March, and are currently in Green Lake County.  

Parent-Reared 2016 Cohort

29_16 (M) and 39_16 (M) spent all of March in Dyer Co, TN.

30_16 (M) was with 4_12 and 3_14 in Miller Co, GA in March, but by 24 March had returned to Wisconsin and was seen in Green Lake County.

31_16 (M) and 38_16 (M) spent March in Poinsett Co, Arkansas. 38_16 was found dead (see below), but 31_16 continues to be in the area.

33_16 (F) spent all of March in Citrus Co, FL.

69_16 (F) left Indiana during March and spent some time in Will County, IL. On 22 March, she left Will County and migrated back to Wisconsin. She spent a little time in Sauk County, before heading to her current location in Wood County, WI.  

70_16 (M) is still at Wheeler NWR, AL, associating with Sandhill Cranes.

71_16 (F) left Jasper Co, IN on 22 March, and headed north to Wisconsin, where she was last reported in Grant County. 

Mortality

38_16 (M) was in Poinsett County, AR with 31_16 (M), and was found dead on 8 March, likely due to vehicle collision.

8_14 (F) left St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refute with mate 4_13 on 6 March. PTT hits put her in Lowndes County, GA on the same day. Her remains were collected on 26 March and the cause of death is not yet determined.

 

Sisyphus

Everybody knows about Sisyphus, even if they don’t. Especially those of us in Crane World where the old boy is, in fact, our Patron Saint. Each of us wears an invisible medal around our neck which says, “Sisyphus, Good Luck with That.” Sisyphus was, of course, the guy in Greek Mythology who displeased the gods and was sentenced to spend eternity pushing a boulder up to the top of a mountain only to have them push it back down again… and again. Sound familiar?

On the morning of March 6th, Colleen called from St. Marks to say 4-13 (Mack) and 8-14 just took off on migration. “That figures”! I smiled, shaking my head. It was the first morning I hadn’t seen them since arriving in December. I sat instead in a cancer ward observing a dozen and a half or so patients, one of them my mother, sitting in neat rows, each physically diminished but with calm nobility, staring off into more yesterdays than tomorrows as drips of chemical hope dripped into them from IV bags hanging above.

“Happy Landings,” I said silently, as I imagined the next installment of excitement when they would magically appear again in Wisconsin.  And this year, they would arrive with the special promise of renewal because they are likely to nest. They’re finally old enough and wise enough and it’s time.

The next day, Heather texted that #8-14’s satellite hit placed them all the way up in Alabama… only a few miles from one of our migration stops. Wow! Whoopers just never lose their ability to amaze! It was imaginary high fives all around, although we have long ago learned that it is unwise to tease the fates with too much celebration. They are as vigilant as they are unforgiving.

As the days progressed, our focus was on Henry and Peanut, who had happily taken up residence in and around the pen. Thought balloons containing the word, “Mine” bobbed above their heads. They spent their days in blissful procrastination, merrily foraging and wondering about, thinking about and planning for the upcoming migration… but not really. Watching them was fun. It is always fascinating how reducing the number of cranes observed… in this case from four to two… so sharpens our focus and magnifies everything about them. These were happy days indeed. Two down, two to go.

On March 23rd, Heather texted that a satellite hit for 8-14 just came in and she was still in the same area of Alabama. I felt a sudden chill. Later in the day, Bev sent a screen grab of the Google Earth hits.  Though not of great quality, the hits related movement and activity but their inherent inaccuracy caused suspicion.

The following day, the long predicted perfect migration day finally arrived. Colleen called from the marsh to report that Henry and Peanut had just boarded the crane train and left the station on their migration to Wisconsin. This time I was seated in the dentist’s chair, mouth agape singing “Ahhhh” accompanied by the sound of the cash register harmonizing happily from the front desk. Since I was in Tallahassee, north of the Refuge, I ran out to the tracking van to try for a signal… but was greeted by the roar of silence. Looking up into an empty sky, the quiet prayer rose again, “Happy Landings,” as I gave the steering wheel a touchdown victory “chest bump” and ”High Five’d” the rearview mirror. Then, regaining my composure, I sat back and waited for the other shoe to drop.

And it did. The next day we received another satellite hit on 8-14 from the same area as before… as an imagined doorbell rang with two military officers standing somber faced at the front door. We would soon be driving north to Alabama.

               ….to be continued.

Proposed Sandhill Crane Hunt

On April 10th, the people of Wisconsin will vote on whether or not to allow Sandhill cranes to be hunted. That question has been asked before and, although it has not been approved in the past, the pressure to add them to the list of game species grows as their numbers increase.

It wasn’t long ago that most people thought Sandhill cranes were doomed to extinction but now they are the most common wildlife we see around White River Marsh. A generation earlier, that story of remarkable recovery is also true of Canada geese. When I was young, a honking chevron high overhead foretold of spring or the coming of snow and was rare enough to cause folks to pause and point.

There are an estimated seven million Canada geese in North America and the birds we once thought of as legends of the fall are now referred to as flying carp. That transition from magnificent wildlife to golf course pest was driven by numbers. A pair of geese on a local pond is an inspiring sight but 500 on the same pond will foul the habitat, disturb the peace, and pollute the water. We reintroduced Canada geese when the numbers were low, but geese are like cranes – they learn migration behavior from their parents. We also built more parks and golf courses, and pushed out most of their natural predators like foxes, wolves, and coyotes. We tipped nature out of balance and left it unchecked, and now many people hate geese. 

The North American population of Sandhill cranes is up to 700 thousand and growing. Already they are referred to as “reverse seed drills” as some farmers report how adept they are at walking up the rows of freshly planted corn, pulling out the kernels as efficiently as the planters can deposit them. I worry that as the numbers grow, these icons of wildness and their story of recovery from the edge of extinction will begin to tarnish and a once magnificent creature will turn into a pest in the eyes of the public.

Still, their numbers are not nearly high enough yet and they are already hunted in 17 US states. Sandhill and Whooping cranes use the same habitat and the chance of misidentifying them is real. Even for experts, a white crane backlit against an even whiter sky can look grey. The vast majority of hunters are wildlife enthusiasts, respectful of the rules, and the ethics of hunting. But, even if there is no misidentification, a Sandhill shot at a popular roosting site will deter a Whooping crane from ever returning to that once safe haven. There are precious few roosting sites for cranes now. Wetlands represent only a small fraction of the habitat in Wisconsin, and mass disturbance will increase that shortage.

There is a good argument for allowing the hunting of many species and, to be perfectly honest, the hunting organizations pay for a good portion of the conservation work done in Wisconsin. Groups like Ducks Unlimited protect habitat, plus funds from hunting licence fees and taxes on ammunition go to support conservation. Hunting can help restore the balance when natural predators are removed and populations of prey species explode. Eventually the hunting of Sandhill cranes might be necessary but we are not there yet. There are other ways to mitigate crop losses. And, with only a hundred Whooping cranes in the eastern flock, accidental shooting or disturbance could be the difference between survival and failure.

For a county-by-county listing of locations for the April 10th hearings, see the DNR webpage

For more details on the story visit:

http://wsobirds.org/about-wso/news/402-state-sandhill-crane-hunt-under-consideration-again

Can You HELP?

Monthly contributions can be processed more efficiently than single or one-time gifts, resulting in a higher percentage of your gift being directed to our work – and you are in control! At any time, you can increase, decrease, pause or stop your support, all at your convenience.

Your monthly gift will help ensure that we are able to continue our work to safeguard Whooping cranes and continue our education and outreach efforts.

When you become a NEW monthly donor, OR increase your current monthly donation amount, you will receive a special hand-folded origami crane made by Mako Pellerin.

Mako has very graciously offered to create a limited number of beaded hanging origami cranes made from the paper used to create last year’s GIANT origami crane, which greeted Whooping Crane Festival attendees in Wisconsin.Students from the Princeton School – along with Mako, very carefully folded the origami crane pictured above, and which boasted a wingspan of more than 30 feet and stood close to 10 feet tall!

Mako saved some of the paper from that special crane to create these smaller origami “off-spring” cranes for you!

In Japanese culture, the crane is a mystical creature and is believed to live for a thousand years. Cranes represent good fortune and longevity and are referred to as the “bird of happiness.”

We hope this very special origami crane will bring you all of these qualities… In addition to your special origami crane, we’ll also send you an instruction sheet for folding more origami cranes!

When you become a monthly supporter you help to provide OM with a reliable, low-cost stream of revenue that sustains our ongoing work and allows us to better forecast for budgeting purposes.

It’s super easy to join and you can contribute any amount you like on a monthly basis: $
10, $15, $25, $50 – Visit this link to learn more or to enroll today!

If you’re already a monthly supporter (thank you!) and would like to increase or change your gift, don’t forget you can login to your personal account at any time to do so using this link: LOGIN 

And They’re OFF!

Colleen messaged me this morning saying today would be THE day the two male Whooping cranes, 5-12 and 4-14 (aka Henry and Peanut) would leave St. Marks NWR to head north.

“Ya, ya,” I said “heard that from Brooke earlier this week.”

Someone needs to remind Brooke that it’s on Fridays that 5-12 prefers to travel… They DID leave today!

Colleen sent along the following timeline via text message earlier today and Brooke concurs they have left – for real: 

10:56 flight. Back to pond. 11:39 go over north pond. Go to NW 11:57 faint signal to NW. 12:01 faint faint, fainter… 12:09 I think I’ve lost the signal

And they’re off! Safe travels boys. Peanut – follow Henry to White River Marsh!

 

Watching Them be Wild

I thought when I stopped flying with birds that I would never again feel that attached to an animal. The connection you share wingtip to wingtip at a thousand feet is not a common experience.

Last fall I spent the better part of three months watching another bird, one to which I had no connection at all. We didn’t share the skies or even the marsh. In fact, he was parent reared and scared to death of me or any other person. I couldn’t put on a costume and use a puppet to communicate with him. He didn’t read my body language or size up my place in his social order and in truth, I hardly ever saw him.

Of all the parent-reared birds we released last year, number 30-16 was the only one that was actually adopted. After a tumultuous start, whooping cranes 4-12 and 3-14, referred to as the Royal Couple, took him in like he was their own.

When Whooping cranes behave the way nature intended, it is not a spectator sport. This engineered family spend most of their time deep in the White River marsh. They sometimes flew to distance ponds on private property but landed out of sight of roads and houses. Occasionally I could see the tops of their heads through binoculars but mostly I listened to the steady beep coming from the leg-mounted transmitters. If I found that beep before sunrise and knew which of their favorite spots they were using to roost, I could sometimes stand on top of the truck and catch their early morning departure.

Parent Reared whooping crane colt #30-16 flies with alloparents 3-14 and 4-12. Photo: J. Duff

Three perfect birds dressed in Royal White but one with a touch of gold. They flew in formation with the chick in the middle and it seemed like the marsh created the mist only to mute the colors of autumn and highlight their beauty. I became attached without ever knowing that bird personally and I watched them leave the marsh on a cold and snowy day in December as the three headed south for the winter. 

They are back at White River now, maybe a little early. They have been spotted deep in the marsh, the adults close together and the chick a few hundred yards off.

male 30-16 was located approximately 300 yards from cranes 3-14 & 4-12. Photo: D. Pellerin

They likely chased him away now that they are back home. That’s a good sign that they may breed this year and produce their own offspring. They taught 30-16 how to migrate and to be wild, and maybe he taught them how to be good parents. And all three of them taught me to appreciate the simpler things.

Parent Reared Crane Returns to White River Marsh!

Volunteer tracker, Doug Pellerin was able to confirm the presence of Parent Reared Whooping crane number 30-16 at White River Marsh yesterday afternoon!

So this young crane did indeed return from southern Georgia with the pair consisting of 3-14 (F) and 4-12 (M) – FANTASTIC news!

Number 30-16 was the only parent reared colt to be ‘adopted’ by alloparent whooping cranes last fall. Photo: D. Pellerin

Why not Give A WHOOP! to celebrate his return!? 

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Royal Couple has Returned

… to White River Marsh!

We received a PTT hit Tuesday evening indicating female 3-14 was back at the marsh. Curious to learn whether male 4-12 and Parent Reared crane number 30-16 were also with her, Brooke sent an email to Tom Schultz.

Shortly after, Tom responded with “I didn’t have strong expectations of seeing the birds, since I knew that they often hung out deep in the marsh, but I was still hopeful.

Well, the good news is that I was able to spot them – standing among cattails, perhaps 200 yards off the road. I parked and got out to attempt to get photos, even though they were well hidden in the vegetation, and it was difficult for the my camera to find the right focal distance.

Then, after only about 20-30 seconds they suddenly took flight. I tried to grab a few shots as they flew (see attached), but at that point I sure wished that I had set my camera to rapid-fire mode. Perhaps you can tell who they are from the photos, even though the view of the bands isn’t great – but I suspect that they were “The Royal Couple”. Unfortunately there were only two of them there, so perhaps 30-16 is no longer with them?”

Young 30-16 was the only crane to not receive a remote tracking device last fall when he was released. He does, however, have a VHF radio so Doug Pellerin will be listening for his beeps on a tracking excursion this week. We’ll let you know when/where he turns up (the young crane – not Doug).

We know 30-16 wintered in south Georgia with this pair and it’s typical for adults to chase off youngsters when breeding season rolls around so hopefully, he’s just been chased away and is still in the area.

In the meantime, enjoy a couple of photos captured by Tom Schultz yesterday morning!

Whooping cranes 3-14 and 4-12 among the cattails at White River Marsh, in Green Lake County, WI. Photo: T. Schultz

A close crop indicates male 4-12 on the right and female 3-14 on the left. Photo: T. Schultz

2017 Season Details

The scientific name of the Whooping Crane is Grus americana but I always thought it should be Grus problematica. One would think it would be simple to switch from the aircraft-led migration method that required months of training to a parent-reared method where nature does much of the work, but that’s not the case. I will try to explain some of the complications but I warn you, it will take some time and the results will likely provide more questions than answers.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team must balance the allocation of the available eggs between the Louisiana Non-Migratory Population (LNMP) and the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). To do that they have proposed that the eggs produced in the captive breeding centers should go to Louisiana and the EMP should use eggs that can be collected from the nesting birds at Necedah NWR. 

For the past three years, the biologist at Necedah has been experimenting with a forced re-nesting study. The early nests produced at Necedah every spring seem to coincide with peak of black fly season so he has been collecting all the eggs from half the nests and leaving the other half as his control group. Pairs that lose their eggs early in the incubation cycle will often re-nest, and that generally occurs after the short black fly season has run its course. Those later nests are generally more successful. In fact, twenty-three chicks were hatched last year at Necedah. There is a downside to this practice, as it requires intensive management. A full time team must monitor the cranes and the air temperatures to estimate when the black flies will emerge and when to collect the eggs. Long-term, intensive management is not one of the characteristics of a self-sustaining flock. Still, the Refuge is willing to continue for now as it provides eggs that will hatch into chicks that we can then release into the Wisconsin Rectangle. A few nests just outside of Necedah are also affected by the black fly issue. More eggs could be collected if they included those nests; however, they have to guesstimate when to limit collection lest they overwhelm the captive breeding centers with eggs.

Nest abandonment happens quickly when the black flies are thickest. The eggs are collected over a short time period and are transferred to ICF, and maybe eventually to Patuxent in Maryland. That means the captive centers are inundated with eggs around the same time that their captive birds are producing, resulting in a heavy workload.

That same principle of multiple clutches is also applied to the captive breeding cranes. Eggs collected from them are hatched in incubators, prompting them to produce more. Except, of course, if they have to stop the production and allow the adults to raise young chicks for the parent-reared (PR) project. That balancing act limits the breeding centers to a combined production to around fifteen parent-reared birds per breeding season.

There is also a Canadian Whooping Crane breeding center at the Calgary Zoo in Alberta. Last year, they produced three parent-reared chicks but could not get them into the U.S. in time for a release in Wisconsin. Shipping live animals across the Canada/U.S. border usually involves livestock transported in trucks or on trains. There are only a few ports of entry at airports that can deal with animals, including endangered birds. The only commercial aircraft flying out of Calgary to the nearest of those entry points does not have cargo doors large enough to handle the crates in which the cranes are transported. Instead, they were flown in a larger aircraft to Texas, which is much closer to Louisiana, so they were added to that release program.

All of this has to do with eggs collected from the wild or produced in captivity. And, just like every year, that’s a guessing game played by professionals with years of experience with captive breeding birds. But not all of the eggs hatch. The formula for calculating the number of eggs that will hatch into chicks is roughly 75 percent, and 75 percent of those that hatch will survive to be released. That calculation has been simplified and updated recently to 59 percent of fertile eggs will result in releasable chicks.

To all of this balancing, calculating, estimating and guessing, WCEP has added another variable. We also hope to produce a small group of costume-reared whooping cranes in 2017. If approved, and if there are enough eggs available, and if the captive centers can handle the workload, we may be moving six to eight costume-reared chicks to the White River Marsh pen facilities early in the season. Our first objective it to get more birds into the Wisconsin Rectangle but we also want to experiment with improvements to the PR release method.

One of the issues that concerned WCEP last year was the inability or reluctance of some of the PR birds to fly when they were first released. That is not surprising, considering that Whooping Cranes fledge at 80 to 100 days of age. For the parent-reared birds, that happens when they are in captivity where they can’t get airborne for more than a few yards. The costume-reared cranes we will raise at White River Marsh will spend the summer learning to fly at the appropriate time. This fall when both the costume-reared and parent-reared cranes are released, we will be able to compare the difference.

Philopatry, or their propensity to return to where they were introduced, is also a problem. Birds that are released late in the fall may not form an affiliation to the area as a wild crane would to its natal area. Costume-reared birds at White River Marsh will spend the entire summer there and, during that time, we expect they will have opportunities to interact with some of the adults that use the marsh. Although it will be a small sample size, by the spring of 2018 we should be able to compare the behavior of both groups.

Our job is to replicate the natural life cycle of these birds as best we can. Ideally, the cranes we reintroduce would spend as much time as possible in the wild, so the plan is to transport them to White River Marsh at the earliest shippable age, around 35 days. Our pen facilities include a dry pen that is fully enclosed and a visually open wet pen where the cranes can roost at night. If this all works out, we will enlarge that pen to include not only the water but also more uplands. We will seed the pen with natural foods like insects and crawfish so the chicks learn to forage as they would in the wild.

Ideally, chicks would spend the summer with their parents and maybe in the future we could arrange for some adult role models during that time. That would be about as close as we could come to providing a natural environment for reintroduced cranes but it wouldn’t be easy. We may be able to use captive adults that are too old to reproduce, yet still have nurturing skills – if they exist. And what do we do with them over the winter while the chicks they raised head south? And how many chicks could a pair raise? Two would be the maximum in the wild but that means we’d need lots of non-reproductive adults to act as alloparents, and many pens to get a reasonable sample size.  Still, it would be an interesting learning opportunity with much to gain if it worked.

As I mentioned earlier, twenty-three chicks were hatched at Necedah last year and I am sure you all know that none of those birds survived. With intense nest management, the black fly problem has been circumvented, at least for now, but we don’t yet know what is causing the post-hatch mortality. This year, OM’s ecologist, Jeff Fox, will be working with Refuge Biologist, Brad Strobel, and Professor Misty McPhee from UW Oshkosh to find out what is happening to those chicks during that vulnerable stage before they can fly. The new study, <strong>Survival and Cause-Specific Mortality of Whooping Crane Chicks on the Necedah NWR</strong> has been approved for this year. According to Pete Fasbender, Field Supervisor for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office, <em>“There is not higher priority for our eastern U.S. reintroduction project to achieve success than determining the cause of Whooping Crane chick mortality in their first 90 days of life.”</em>

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team recently conducted a population viability analysis (PVA) that included all the Whooping Crane populations. For the EMP it was determined that only a moderate reduction of mortality from egg to fledge, from 92-96% to ~ 85% is needed to stabilize the population and eventually reach our self-sustaining goal.

We have two pairs that frequent the White River Marsh that have now reached breeding age. We hope to relocate our camera, getting it close enough to monitor at least one pair during their incubation and, with luck, be able to track them as they introduce their chick to the surrounding habitat. Remember that “the beast” was so named for a reason, it will not be easy relocating it deep in the marsh, or guessing where the birds will nest before that process begins. But, if we are successful, it will be the first time in history that nesting and nurturing Whooping Cranes will be captured on streaming video and broadcast live.

If all of this comes to fruition, it will be a busy season. We will be monitoring nesting birds in the spring and attempting to capture one pair on camera. Depending on egg availability/survival, we will be caring for costume-reared chicks at the White River Marsh pen and assisting with the releases and intensive monitoring in the fall, while trying to determine what is causing the loss of all those chicks at Necedah. Plus, we have our ongoing job of capturing the growing list of birds that must be captured to replace non-functioning transmitters.

This is just an outline of the plan and a lot of details have yet to be finalized within the various WCEP teams. Each project has pros, cons, and a hundred variables. If we can sort them out ourselves, we will keep you posted.

Capturing Cranes

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.

4-08, 34-09, 10-09, 17-07, W10-15 and 23-10 in Greene Co, IN. Photo: Dan Kaiser

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. 

Whooping crane #7-11 gets a new VHF transmitter. From L to R: Dr. Urbanek, S Smith, A Gillet and A Kearns. Photo: Dan Kaiser

Dr. Urbanek, in costume gets close to cranes 3-11 & 7-11 in an attempt to capture 7-11. Photo: Dan Kaiser

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