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FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update: May 9, 2003

Today's Report Includes:

Almost Everybirdy's Back

For the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock, another migration is history. And we can ALMOST celebrate the end of a historic and successful migration for the tiny Eastern flock! All but one (chick #14-02 is still out there someplace) of the 16 young whooping cranes who survived their 1204-mile, ultralight-led migration south and their first winter in Florida have completed their first journey north. And all five of the Hatch Year 2001 "ultra-cranes" are home in Wisconsin, too. These 21 birds are the founding members of a new flock that will migrate once again over eastern North America after more than a century of absence. Without human assistance, they will depart in the fall and return each spring for the rest of their lives. When old enough, they'll lay eggs and raise chicks to help the flock grow. Imagine! You may look upward during future migrations and see these cranes or their children or grandchildren flying majestically overhead. Our final report of the season brings the latest crane migration news (including a surprise capture and free ride home for #9-02!) and tells you what's next. But first. . .

Craniac Quick Quiz: True or False?
You've learned many things about this historic season and the endangered whooping cranes. Are the following statements true or false? Read the rest of this report carefully and you'll find all the right answers.

T F 1. In Fall 2002 Ultralight planes led 16 chicks for the tiny Eastern flock from Wisconsin to Florida because there are no adult wild cranes there to teach them this migration route.
T F 2. The Aransas/Wood Buffalo (Western) flock's journey north is about 2,500 miles, while the Eastern flock's is less than half that distance.
T F 3. Experts chose a Wisconsin to Florida migration route because whoopers flew a similar route over a century ago, AND because this route is far from the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock's migration route.
T F 4. Whooping crane experts hope that the Western flock and the new Eastern flock will someday combine into one giant flock.
T F 5. Now that the ultralight pilots showed the cranes the Eastern (Wisconsin-to-Florida) migration route, the ultralight planes won't be used any more.
T F 6. WCEP partners worried that Chick #9 might get lost migrating by herself, so they captured her May 4 and put her in a plane for Wisconsin.
T F 7. The young whoopers at Necedah Ntional Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin will lay eggs and raise their own chicks this year.
T F 8. It has taken 63 years for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock to grow from a low of 15 birds in 1941 to the present population of 184. It has taken 2 years for the reintroduced Eastern flock to grow from zero to 21 birds.
T F 9. The reintroduction of the whooping crane to its former range in eastern North America will take one more year to accomplish.

Welcome to Canada, Aransas/Wood Buffalo Flock

Tom Stehn, Biologist at Aransas NWR. U.S. Leader of the International Crane Recovery Team, a WCEP Partner

Tom Stehn gives this great news:

"The 2002-2003 whooping crane season at Aransas is over! Our refuge staff did not see the remaining two cranes on April 27th, and I did not find them from the airplane on April 29th. These last two cranes are believed to have started the migration between April 24-27."

Tom has reported to us all season on the Aransas/Wood Buffalo (Western) flock--the world's only naturally occurring migratory breeding flock of wild whooping cranes. (Reminder: the new Eastern flock is migratory, but have been reintroduced and are not yet old enough to breed.) The Western flock spends each winter under Tom's watchful eyes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where they've come since long before it became a wildlife refuge in 1937.

Tom: A New Story That's Old
"I have one story to tell you," writes Tom. "About three weeks ago, an elderly gentleman came in to the Refuge Visitor Center and asked to speak to me. He must have gotten my name from the Internet, because I had no idea who he was, nor did he tell me. He simply asked me: 'Do you know what you have here?' referring to the whooping cranes. 'Yes,' I said, 'we have 184 birds in the flock.' I felt very smug, figuring that if I didn't know something about whooping cranes, who would? 'No,' this man said, 'you don't realize how special these whooping cranes are. Based on the fossil record, they've been in North America for millions of years.' Then he asked me how long the whooping cranes had been coming to Aransas. 'I don't know,' I replied, 'but you'd have to look at the geologic history of Aransas and figure out how long the salt marshes along the Texas coast have been present and where the coastline was located thousands of years ago. I think the whooping cranes have been coming to Aransas at least dating back to the end of the ice ages and last glacial period.'

"This man wanted a more exact answer, but I didn't know any more. However, he made me think once again just how very special these whooping cranes are. It is people like this who help me appreciate the whooping cranes over and over again. I hope some of you will follow whooping cranes the rest of your lives, and years from now remember back to your youth when you first heard about whooping cranes when there were less than 200 whooping cranes that migrated north every year: 184 to be exact.

"Have a great spring and summer."

Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator

Wally: "Another Migration is History"
"No sightings were received during the past week. Looks like another migration is history. Most if not all birds are likely in Canada," says Wally Jobman from Nebraska, where he keeps track of the Western flock's migration between Texas and Canada each spring and fall. Wally adds one more thing for you: "Have a good summer!"

Brian Johns, Biologist at Wood Buffalo National Park. Canadian Leader of the International Crane Recovery Team, a WCEP Partner

Brian: Cranes Reach Home at Record Pace
"This spring, with increased southerly winds and clear skis, the cranes flew through Saskatchewan in record pace," says Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Brian Johns. Brian monitors the flock on their Canadian nesting grounds, a vast wilderness half the size of Indiana. Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) is located in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

"There were few sightings of cranes on the ground for any length of time," says Brian. "Usually the cranes only stop for a day or two anyway; however, this spring there were fewer calls than usual from observers. The first birds seen near the nesting grounds was a pair flying over the Peace River on April 26 about 130 km southeast of the nesting area. The mild temperatures of late April may have moved the cranes into the breeding area ahead of schedule--only to be greeted by snow showers and cool temperatures from May 2-6. I begin my breeding pair surveys next week, so here's hoping that the cranes have a good season." We hope so too, Brian!

The whole reason for migration is to reach a favorable area for nesting and raising the next generation. Cranes build new nests soon after they arrive at Wood Buffalo National Park. Brian describes what he'll be looking for on his surveys from the air: "The nests are built in water and are about 1 metre across. Some nests are built from the bottom of the pond up while others are floating. The top of the nest is usually about 10 cm above the surface of the water. Preferred locations are ones that contain suitable nesting material, such as bulrush, sedge or cattails in about 15-30 cm of water."

Try This! Celebrate With Origami Cranes
Fold a crane like this one!
Brian's comment about the first-sighted cranes flying over the Peace River is a good reminder that in mythology, whooping cranes represent long lives, peace and tranqility. That is our wish for ALL species--human and nonhuman--in these times. Celebrate the cranes' return to their nesting grounds by folding your own origami cranes to display or give as gifts with good wishes. You'll find directions here:

Eastern Flock: All But #14 at Home in Wisconsin
9 chicks in Richland County, WI, end of April, 2003.
Credit Jack Knowles
What a week! After a hide-and-seek game from ground and air in 3 states, Chick #9 was captured, crated, and flown home from Ohio in a plane on May 4. Sara writes: "Before we could say or do anything, she started flying towards us! She landed right next to us and seemed very excited to see us. I picked her up, carried her to the box and put her inside." Why would such an unusual procedure be necessary? We talk more about that later in the report, but first, read Sara's whole suspenseful story and see more not-to-be-missed photos of the capture:

As for the rest of the flock, Crane #14 is the only one still out and about--last seen in Mason County, Illinois on April 13. "Cranes #1, #11 and #12 OFFICIALLY completed their spring migration when they returned to Necedah NWR in Juneau County, WI on April 28 after spending almost two weeks in Oconto County, WI," reports Sara. "Crane #1-02 has since split off and all three have moved off the refuge." Meanwhile, all five 2001 whoopers are in home territory in Wisconsin. For the scoop on the rest of the 2002 birds, also in home territory, see Sara's notes:

The Capture of Chick #9: What Would YOU Decide?
Sara with #9-02 before, and after boxing her up for the flight back to WI.
Photo Lara Fondow, ICF
Consider the comments of Operation Migration's Heather Ray and aviculturalist Sara Zimorski as you think about the capture of #9 and our question: What would YOU have decided?

Heather: "Yes, capture and transport are always stressful on cranes; however, the stress that she must have experienced since April 1 must also be considered. She had spent the entire last summer, fall and winter in the company of 16 others of her kind, and then suddenly found herself alone AND in unfamiliar territory. Both these factors have been taken into consideration by the WCEP Bird Team, who got endorsement from the Whooping Crane Recovery Team to pick up and transport her. Joe and I did some checking last week. Looking back over each day's flight south, we discovered that #9 had been the one that missed the most of the fall route. She missed a total of 6 migration legs, totaling 391 miles. That's over 30% of the entire route! And perhaps most importantly, she missed the entire distance between Meigs Co. TN and Pike Co. GA, a distance of just over 160 miles. If you look at the route she had been taking up to that point, she had been doing pretty well."

Sara: " We had planned on capturing #9 and bringing her back if we found her again and she hadn't made significant progress in her migration from the last stop in North Carolina. Little did we know she would decide to move again after sitting in one place for two weeks and after we had a plan to catch her. Anyway, once she got out of the mountains she was headed in the right direction, but from her position in Ohio we believed it would still be very difficult for her to get back to Wisconsin. She still wasn't in an area she knew, and she would hit Lake Michigan and most likely have no idea what to do or might have trouble navigating around the big lake. Additionally, we don't really have enough manpower and resources to continue following her with all the other birds already back and moving around so much. It would have been interesting--and some of us were sort of torn about what to do--but in the end we were heavily invested in the plan to catch her, so we stayed with that plan."

Try This!  Check the map above to see #9's migration progress (blue dots). Compare her route to the route taken on the journey south (yellow dotted line). How do you think Crane #9 would have done at finding her way over the landscapes she had never flown before?



What?s Next for the Eastern Flock?
Ultralight pilot and Project Leader Joe Duff says, "Around 35 to 40 Whooping crane chicks are expected to hatch this year at the six captive breeding centres around North America. The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has allocated 18 to 20 of these birds to our project. We will begin moving them from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland to Necedah in late June. They will be conditioned to follow our aircraft at the same sites we used to train the last two generations and it should be interesting to see how many of the wild cranes [the 2001 and 2002 ultralight-led chicks] will want to claim that territory as their own."

Of course, Joe and the other OM pilots don't want to be flying birds to Florida forever. With two successful ultralight whooper migrations behind them, they hope to teach this same migration route to a new generation of captive-bred birds (that means no adult wild parents) each fall for three more years. That means you can watch the story unfold with ultralight migrations each fall for three more years! They estimate that within that time, they will phase out the ultralight planes and see if veteran cranes--like the HY2001 and 2002 birds you've been following--will lead any newly-introduced birds on the Wisconsin-to-Florida migration. They'll know they are successful when the next generation starts to learn from this group how to migrate. The goal of WCEP's reintroduction project is to build a flock of 125 birds by 2020. With 21 birds so far, they're on the way!

Hear ICF aviculturalist Kelly Macguire explain WCEP's plan to build up the flock's core population:

Photo ICF

Why Bring Back the Cranes?
If you followed Journey South last fall, you'll remember our journal question about why the ultralight-led migration project is important. Now we share OM Project Leader Joe Duff's thoughts on that question.

Beyond saving the whooping crane from extinction, what other benefits does Joe believe will come from this project? How do Joe's thoughts compare with yours?
Listen to find out:

Eleven Fluffy Chicks Hatched and Training for Fall
"As of May 6, we have ELEVEN new WCEP whooping crane chicks hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center," reports Sara Zimorski. "The first chick hatched on April 21 and #11-03, the most recent chick, hatched the morning of May 6. Two of these chicks were sent as eggs from the San Antonio Zoo, which is one of five captive breeding facilities for whooping cranes. The other eggs have all come from whoopers at Patuxent. ICF will most likely be sending several fertile eggs to Patuxent next week to round out the group of 18-20 chicks we hope to have for the project this year. According to Dan Sprague and the crane crew at Patuxent, all the chicks are doing well and the oldest four have been going outside for training with the ultralight. You'll meet and follow these newly-hatched chicks (see photos on Web) when you join us in September for Journey South!
2003 chicks at Patux.
Chick 1
credit WCEP
2003 chicks at Patux.
Chick 3
credit WCEP

Matches and Mates: Role Models Help
Crane 6, hatch year 02
credit WCEP
You might recall that the HY02 chicks (hatch year 2002 chicks) didn't migrate with a bird #6. Sara reminds us: "Crane #6-02 was held back and not shipped to Necedah last June with the other 2002 chicks, due to a minor wing injury. She is being used as a role model for the new 2003 chicks. She was raised by costumed people and with the ultralight, so #6 is very used to the surroundings and noises that accompany the training, and she also seems to like the chicks!"

Ask the Expert received a question that involves this chick. The question, which is about the reintroduced Eastern flock of birds, is: "I believe that the goal is to produce 25 nesting pairs by 2015. Must there be further human intervention or assistance to achieve the mating, or is there evidence that the birds will know to do this part okay on their own?

Our crane expert Laura Erickson begins her answer this way: "Mating behaviors are instinctive. The trick in the case of these introduced Whooping Cranes isn't teaching them how to mate--it will be making sure they know WHO to mate with." For the rest of Laura's answer, and why crane #6-02 is so important, see:


PhotoJack Knowles

East and West Will Never Meet
Meanwhile, the whoopers hatched in spring 2002 are having their first birthdays. In terms of human lives, the HY 2002 birds are not quite teenagers--at least, they're not yet interested in "dating." We DO know that during the next few months they will break their bond with humans, fine-tune their survival skills, and become as free and wild as nature intended. The cranes we've watched so closely may live 20 to 30 years; they will be the ancestors of what we hope will be a thriving Eastern flock, like that which existed decades ago before it was wiped out. During their lifetime, we hope the Western, or Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock (now 184 whooping cranes) will keep adding to its numbers. But the two flocks will never meet. Their separation is necessary to prevent the spread of any diseases among them, and to protect the entire species from being wiped out by a single storm or disaster.

Slow-growing Population: Discussion of Challenge Question #13
We asked: "Since most adult cranes nest every year, why do you think the whooping crane population has grown so slowly and the species is still endangered?"

Nilay, Gurveer, Jennifer, and Nicole from Iselin (New Jersey) Middle School/grade 7A gave this superb answer: "The Whooping Crane population has grown slowly because they nest only once every year and hatch only one egg. Migration is a dangerous venture and cranes get hurt or killed during the trip. Some dangers to the cranes are power lines and fences, hungry predators, disease, and hunters. Since they hatch so few per year, any death makes it hard to increase their numbers quickly and they are therefore still endangered."

Tom Stehn gives his answer next. As you read Tom's words, notice how his comments reinforce what the Iselin students wrote. Also take note of any additional information. Then use what you learned to explain to family or friends why whooping cranes are still endangered and likely to remain so for a long time.

"Whooping cranes are a species that have a very slow potential for growth," writes biologist Tom Stehn, who leads the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team along with Canada's Brian Johns. "First, a whooping crane is at least 3 years of age before it nests and tries to raise young. Nesting and caring for young chicks seems to be a learning process, since whooping cranes on average are 5 years of age before they actually successfully raise young and migrate with offspring to Texas.

"Whooping cranes lay two eggs just about every year, but usually only one chick survives. The parents usually take good care of one of the chicks, feeding it more and protecting it from predators. They sometimes ignore the second chick, which usually doesn't survive. There are many hazards to young chicks, including disease when first hatched. Also, predators take young chicks in their first 80 days of life before they learn how to fly to be able to escape predators. Predators young whooping crane chicks have to watch out for are wolves, bears, and even ravens or eagles that will fly down and take a very young chick off a nest.

"Whooping crane pairs that bring a youngster with them to Texas every other year are doing well. Compare this to a mallard duck that might raise 6 or 8 ducklings in a good year. Since whooping cranes don't bring many young to Aransas, they make up for this slow growth rate by living a long time. Whereas a duck may live only 5 years, whooping cranes can live up to 30 years in the wild. I know of one female whooping crane that lived 16 years before being killed by hitting a power line in the spring migration, 2002. In her lifetime, she had nested 12 times and hatched at least 8 chicks, but only brought 3 chicks to Aransas. However, these 3 chicks represent a positive rate of growth since each pair needs to produce 2 chicks in their lifetime to replace themselves. Still, it represents a slow growth rate.

"It has taken 63 years for the whooping crane population to grow from a low of 15 birds in 1941 to the present population of 184, an annual growth rate of 3.4 percent. As long as that growth rate remains above zero, the population will survive."

Congratulations to Operation Migration!
You recall that the ongoing reintroduction of whooping cranes to the eastern part of North America is being carried out by a group of public and non-profit organizations known as the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). Operation Migration (OM)is one of the nine founding members. Their work over the past decade to perfect the ultralight aircraft migration technique has, after only two years (2001 and 2002), resulted in 21 wild whooping cranes being included in the overall population total. We aren't alone in singing their praises!

On May 1, Operation Migration was named a finalist in Canadian Geographic Enterprises' Canadian Environment Awards: A Celebration of Community Achievement. The team that trains and leads our ultralight chicks on migration was nominated in the category of Restoration and Rehabilitation. Rick Boychuk, chair of the selection panel, said: "We received well over 150 nominations from hamlets, villages, towns and cities across the country. The Canadian public is passionate about the country's environment and proud of its environmental defenders." Canada's Environment Week (like the U.S. Earth Day) will be celebrated from June 1 - 7, with the Canadian Environment Awards announced during a gala at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario on June 2. For complete details, see:

To our friends at Operation Migration, we say "Whoopee! Way to Go!"

Craniacs, What's Your Score?
The answers to our true/false quiz at the beginning of the report: Questions 1, 2, 3, 6 and 8 are TRUE.
Questions 4,5, 7 and 9 are FALSE.

Year-end Evaluation: Please Share Your Thoughts
Please take a few minutes to share your suggestions and comments in our Year-End Evaluation Form below. The information you provide at the end of each year is the single most important tool used to guide our planning.

Journey North
Year End Evaluation
Please share your thoughts

This is the FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update for Spring, 2003.

Thanks for making the journey north with us! We look forward to welcoming you back in the fall for Journey South and the THIRD year of the historic reintroduction--with all new chicks to follow the ultralight as they learn their migration route. Until then, here's wishing you wind beneath your wings and a smooth-sailing summer!

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