Back in September, I wrote that the eastern migratory population of Whooping Cranes could grow by 22 birds this year if all of the juveniles in Wisconsin were able to migrate south and make it through the winter. In the last few months, seven of the birds have died, leaving 15 youngsters.
Here’s a quick summary of what has happened and where they’re at now.
The photo above shows two white adult cranes and a reddish brown juvenile wading in the Wisconsin River in October. The colt was one of four that, as an experiment, were raised not by costumed handlers but by captive adult cranes at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, and then were released into the territories of wild adult pairs at Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.
Two of the released birds died at the refuge. (One was killed by a predator. The other was hit by a vehicle along a public road; anyone with information about the incident should contact the refuge’s law-enforcement officer, Mary Blasing, at 608-565-2551.) Another migrated, apparently with Sandhill Cranes, to Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee, where it remains today. The fourth, shown above, flew with its adult pair to a wintering area in western Kentucky.
Earlier this year, one pair of adult cranes at Necedah successfully hatched and fledged a chick, a female. She and her parents, a 10-year-old female and a 9-year-old male, left Necedah on November 10 and were located at the adults’ previous wintering location in southern Illinois four days later. Unfortunately the juvenile was not seen on an aerial survey on December 11; she is missing and presumed dead.
Direct Autumn Release
A month ago, we featured spectacular photos by our friend Tom Lynn of the nine young birds in the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) program at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Wisconsin. Since then, four of the nine have died, all at Horicon. Three appear to have been killed by predators. Results of a necropsy on the fourth bird have not been issued yet, but Joan Garland, spokesperson for the International Crane Foundation, said the bird may have died due to an illness.
Of the five remaining DAR birds, one flew south in November to Hiwassee, a refuge where several Whoopers and 50,000 Sandhills spend the winter. Managers and crane enthusiasts worried about the other four because they remained at Horicon until last week despite frigid temperatures with below-zero wind chills.
Last Wednesday, December 11, a team of crane handlers from ICF headed to the refuge to capture the birds and fly them south to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. The birds had other ideas. As the ICF team drove toward the cranes’ location, they took wing and three continued south, leaving Horicon. The fourth turned back to a cornfield. The costumed handlers moved in, captured and crated the bird, drove it to ICF headquarters in Baraboo, where it received a health check, and the next day flew the youngster to the Wheeler refuge, where it’s currently with a large Sandhill flock. You can see photos of the capture on Tom Lynn’s blog.
The three birds that continued flying eventually made it to a rural area in central Illinois, where they remain today. Garland said they are near open water and appear to be doing well and that the tracking team is keeping a close eye on them.
Operation Migration began leading eight juveniles south from Wisconsin in early October. So far, they’ve made it to central Alabama. All eight birds are doing well, although on yesterday’s flight, four were reluctant to follow the ultralights and had to be crated. The pilots and ground crew are working hard to get the birds to their wintering location, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Here’s hoping for good flying weather the rest of the way. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor
UPDATE, JANUARY 24
The three young Direct Autumn Release cranes in Illinois have died, bringing to 10 the number of juvenile Whoopers that have died since September. The three were probably killed by coyotes. A biologist from the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuges Complex found the remains of one of the three last week; the other two have not been seen and are presumed dead. Anne Lacy from the International Crane Foundation said the area where the birds were staying has a large coyote population. “Coyotes are hungry, and these were three naive birds,” she said. “We have zero reason to suspect foul play.”
In a statement, ICF said the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership plans to continue the DAR program: “Discussions are now occurring within WCEP about how we might handle the releases in 2014, and how we might address some of the questions that have come from this year’s program.”
The two remaining DAR birds from 2013 are said to be doing well. One is at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee, and the other is hanging around adult Whooping Cranes at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.