I saw 17 Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin this weekend.
If you were reading that sentence 15 or 20 years ago, you’d have been within your rights to think I was out of my mind or a really bad birder — or both. In the ’90s, the only Whoopers in the Badger State were captive birds at the International Crane Foundation, and wild cranes wintered only on the Texas coast. Today, in 2013, after more than a dozen years of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership’s efforts to bring cranes back to eastern North America, the notion that a birder could see nearly the equivalent of the entire 1941 world population is not outrageous. It’s simply a fact that no one would question.
About 100 Whoopers live in Wisconsin from mid-March to mid-November each year, and the population could grow by as many 22 birds this winter. Eight cranes will follow ultralight aircraft to Florida; an additional 13 will be released with adult cranes and will migrate with them; and a single wild-hatched chick is being raised by its parents and should follow them south. If all 22 survive their journeys, they’ll be counted in the official tally.
You might think that after so many years, interest in the project would have waned by now. Think again! I attended this weekend’s Whooping Crane Festival in Necedah, Green Lake, Berlin, and Baraboo, Wisconsin, and I can attest to the enthusiasm and passion that lots and lots of people have for the cranes, for Operation Migration, and for all the other agencies, groups, and volunteers who keep the project going year after year.
As you can read below, I heard excellent presentations by ultralight pilot Joe Duff and Contributing Editor Kenn Kaufman. I learned a lot about the Necedah population of Whooping Cranes, the black flies that plague them, and the refuge itself. And I saw beautiful, magnificent cranes.
On Friday, I joined about 50 other birders for a behind-the-scenes tour of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the site that the majority of the birds return to each year. Our mini-caravan of a van and a school bus followed roads that are normally accessible only to refuge staff, trackers, and crane handlers. In about two hours, we saw six pairs of adult cranes, including the bird above. In the wetlands and woodlands, we also saw Trumpeter Swans, Red-headed Woodpeckers, ducks, and geese.
Katie Goodwin, the refuge’s visitor services manager, told us the refuge is also home to coyotes, black bears, fishers, and two wolf packs. Plus, the refuge is one of the best places in the world to see the endangered Karner blue butterfly.
We learned that in the next week or so, four young Whooping Cranes will become part of the Necedah population. The birds have been raised this summer at Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, one of the primary captive-rearing sites in the program. But instead of being raised by costumed handlers, like the birds that fly with Operation Migration’s ultralights, these four have been raised entirely by captive adult Whooping Cranes. Soon they will be crated and flown to Necedah, where they will be moved to pens near the territories of wild adults, including at least one of the pairs I saw. After a few days, biologists will release the young birds. They fully expect the adults to care for the young and teach them the migration route this fall.
Ultimately, project leaders hope to learn whether cranes that are raised by adults are are better parents — especially with hatching, raising, and fledging their own chicks — when they’re older.
The one significant black mark on the reintroduction project, of course, has been the Whoopers’ lack of breeding success. When they are a few years old, the cranes pair up, go through courtship rituals, build nests, lay eggs, and incubate them. Only a few pairs, however, have successfully hatched chicks, and even fewer have fledged their chicks and taught them the migration route south. In a few years, when the four young birds are old enough to breed, biologists will track their progress in hopes of learning whether parent-reared Whoopers have more successful nesting outcomes.
One of the primary reasons for nest failures at Necedah has been the black fly. Adult flies hatch in great numbers in spring, feed on birds, and then die off. The trouble is that for the few weeks that the flies are around, the big white cranes are sitting on nests incubating eggs and are easy targets for swarms of hungry flies. For a couple of years, in an experiment, a biological treatment known as BTI was applied to areas near the refuge where the flies hatch, and the number of flies fell. Last spring, BTI was not applied, and the birds abandoned their nests en masse when the flies hit.
Prospects for continuing the treatments appear slim, according to biologists and others I spoke with this weekend. The thinking is that Whooping Cranes have been introduced into an environment, and the environment should not be altered simply for their benefit. Trout, swallows, and other wildlife feed on black flies, so removing the flies certainly has an effect on them.
Sandhill Cranes and Trumpter Swans have nested at Necedah for years, and they have “figured out” how to deal with the flies, refuge manager Doug Staller told me. “The Whoopers need to figure it out, too.”
Staller and others are hoping to help the cranes figure it out. Project leaders are considering whether to change the cranes’ breeding phenology. In other words, after the birds lay eggs, biologists would remove all of their eggs from the nests and take them to be hatched in captivity. (Many of those birds could then be raised for training with the ultralights, although no final decision has been made about what to do with birds hatched from the eggs.)
Davin Lopez, a biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the hope is that at least 30 percent of the wild crane pairs would re-nest within a few weeks after the black flies have died off for the year. By forcing the cranes to double-clutch, managers may boost the Whoopers’ breeding success significantly.
That’s all in the future, of course. The festival this past weekend was about celebrating the birds now. Here are a couple of highlights:
• Kaufman, author of excellent field guides and the “ID Tips” column in each issue of BirdWatching, flew as a passenger in Duff’s ultralight on Friday morning. (Their trike is at lower right in this photo.) Kenn was the featured speaker that evening in Green Lake. He spoke with wonder about being in the ingenious machine as the air moved around him and as the cranes flew with pilot Brooke Pennypacker’s trike nearby. “It was one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me,” he said, as everyone in the room hung on his every word.
• Duff received a gift (above) to commemorate his 20th year of flying with birds. In a large frame hung carvings of the flight feathers of the four species he has flown with: Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Sandhill Crane, and Whooping Crane. The piece was created by Thomas Tyers, a Wisconsin wood carver who specializes in realistic carvings of feathers.
• The process of training this year’s class of eight birds will continue for the next few weeks before the journey to Florida begins. Early Saturday morning, at least 80 people stood at the corner of two roads on the edge of White River Marsh State Wildlife Area, where the cranes are penned. After waiting for more than an hour for fog to burn off, we were treated to the extraordinary site of an ultralight leading five juvenile Whoopers through the sky. Three of the birds couldn’t be coaxed into the air that morning, but the other five followed the trike dutifully.
• Joan Garland of the International Crane Foundation introduced me to photographer Tom Lynn, who has special access to the nine young cranes that are part of the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) project at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 30 miles southeast of the White River Marsh. In early to mid-October, the DAR birds will be released in the company of older cranes on the refuge and will learn the migration route south by following them. Lynn, who has been photographing the birds since one of them hatched in mid-June, plans to follow the birds when they head south. His goal is to create a unique photographic record of the lives of young Whooping Cranes. You can follow along on his blog.
• Saturday’s events wrapped up with an entertaining presentation by Duff. He described how the cranes are able to get lift from the ultralight’s wing, which enables them to fly long distances. Then he illustrated the point by showing a pilot’s view in a video clip: A young Whooper flaps to keep up with the trike, but as soon as the bird finds the “sweet spot” of lift just above the trike’s wing, the bird’s wings straightened instantly, allowing it to glide along. Everyone in the room gasped at the sight, understanding immediately why the ultralight is key to the operation’s success.
• On Sunday, attendees visited the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, where all 15 of the world’s crane species are on display. ICF is the world’s leading crane research and conservation organization, and its exhibits permit visitors to see cranes up close.
Operation Migration hosts its Whooping Crane Festival every year in mid-September. If you weren’t there last weekend, I encourage you to attend next year. And if you live anywhere along or near the Wisconsin-to-Florida migration route, keep tabs on OM’s website for news about where and when the public can watch flyovers this fall.
Let’s face it: Every time we turn around, the news about birds and the general health of the planet goes from bad to worse, so we could all use some inspiration now and then. You can’t get much more inspirational than the effort to re-introduce the world’s most endangered species of crane into a 1,200-mile-long flyway. Many, many people have dedicated their lives to pulling this off, and due to their tireless efforts, I had the chance to see 17 Whooping Cranes in Wisconsin this weekend. And that is no small thing. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor