Western Flock News

May 1, 2009
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Meet Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Dear Journey North,
The migration is in full swing with recent sightings reported from Canada to Texas. As of April 30th, 11 whooping cranes are known to still be at Aransas. One was on Matagorda Island and ten were seen from the whooping crane tour boat in two groups of 6 and 4. Three of the cranes in the group of 4 were observed "dancing." This behavior is part of the well-known and very unique breeding behavior of cranes that occurs daily in the spring, mostly while the birds are in migration. This dancing is an essential ritual that gets the female prepared for laying eggs shortly after she arrives on the nesting grounds.


Photo Brian Bailey

Scarbaby Update
Also in the group of 4 was the crane we have named "Scarbaby" and his mate. This crane can be identified by a distinctive mark on the back of its head where it was apparently hit and almost died when it was about 10 months old. Scarbaby failed to migrate for two summers in a row. He made his first trip to Canada as a 3-year-old and returned the following fall with a mate. I am disappointed that Scarbaby and his mate are still at Aransas, since that means they will probably not nest this year. It is very late for adult birds to still be at Aransas. There would not be enough time to migrate, nest, and raise a chick before the cold weather hits in the fall. All adult birds have always left Aransas no later than April 21st if they are going to nest.

Winds: Good to Go
For the past two days, the wind has blown strong from the southeast, providing ideal conditions for migration. I expect most of the remaining birds to start the migration in the next 10 days or so, as the windy weather is forecast to continue.

An Injury in South Dakota?
Two cranes are currently at the LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota where they have been for at least 5 days. They are leaving the refuge and flying about 5 times a day to a nearby house where corn has been put out to feed pheasants. The people living in the house have noticed that the smaller of the two cranes (the female) is limping and flies with one leg "hanging down," meaning it is not held straight in line with the body in flight. Whooping cranes have long, thin legs that are subject to injury. They can injure a leg colliding with a power line, which they do not see in time to avoid. They can break a leg, or dislocate the leg where it connects to the hip. Sometimes these issues resolve themselves and the bird gets better — so let's hope for the best. In the meantime, the injured crane is feeding well on the corn being provided. I'm guessing that the two cranes are delaying further migration as they stock up on food and allow time for the injured female to get better.

Tom Stehn
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Austwell, Texas

Meet Brian Johns
biologist, Canadian Wildlife Service

Dear Journey North,
Migration conditions have been mixed; one day the winds will be out of the south and the next they are out of the north. Temperatures have been variable but below normal. Strong winds and snow fell on Monday in southern Saskatchewan, which would have temporarily slowed down migration.

Whooping cranes are scattered throughout Saskatchewan, including some in the north central part of the province where the agricultural lands end and the land all becomes forest as you head north. (The cranes can remain in the agricultural lands feeding on winter wheat for a few days or as long as a week to gain some energy before making the final push to the nesting grounds.) Thus, some of the whooping cranes (the Leoville and Dorintosh locations: see Journey North map) are as far north as they can get in Saskatchewan before they make the final 2-day flight up to the nesting grounds, so those birds should be on their territories in Wood Buffalo National Park by the time you read this!

Brian Johns
Canadian Wildlife Service
Saskatoon, SK
Wood Buffalo National Park