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Whooping Crane Migration Update: March 26, 2004

Today's Report Includes:

Where's the Whooper? Photo OM
Crane #107 turned up March 12 in Tennessee! Photo C& M Kaldenbach

Whoopers Overhead! Migration Begins
If you saw our News Flash last week, you know that migration is underway! Now several birds in both flocks—-the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock and the tiny reintroduced Eastern flock—-are heading for their summer nesting grounds. At the Chassahowitzka NWR release pen, the four older ultracranes (#105, 204, 218 and 214) continue to share living space with the sixteen '03 chicks, still hanging out on their wintering grounds. But by the end of last week, thirteen of the hatch year '01/'02 ultralight-led whooping cranes had begun spring migration. ICF's Anne Lacey was able to confirm that male #106 is already back in Adams County, Wisconsin! What is especially remarkable about #106 being first? Find out the answer, and learn the whereabouts of all the other ultracranes, by checking our frequently updated charts:

Map Credit ICF

When Will The Rest of the Whoopers Leave? Challenge Question #5
“Through thousands of years of trial and error, whooping cranes have learned not to leave too early,” said Tom Stehn, a leader of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team. Will our young ultralight-led birds know when it is time to migrate? ICF’s Sara Zimorski explained: As for most living things, the most important time-keeper is the length of daylight, or photoperiod. The lengthening days trigger a hormonal response in the birds. They may also use proximate clues such as temperature and vegetation changes. As migration time nears, the birds become increasingly restless, peering up at the sky, flapping their wings, and squabbling with one another. At Necedah NWR, we also often saw them soaring in thermals, a technique used throughout migration to conserve energy and gain altitude.” But don’t you wonder...

Challenge Question #5:
“Why did most of the ‘experienced’ ultracranes leave so much earlier this year?”

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Aransas Flock on the Move: Challenge Question #6
Tom Stehn sent exciting news about the Wood/Buffalo flock after his aerial census on March 23. Think about how hard it must be to count cranes from a small plane! The Refuge consists of over 70,000 acres that attract thousands of migratory birds.
crane_flying_Hillebrand crane_Stehn_surveyplane crane_Stehn03
Steve Hillebrand, USFWS
Tom Stehn and Pilot
View from Plane

Dear Journey North,

The whooping crane migration has begun!!!! I did a census flight on March 23rd and estimated about 6 cranes had departed. The only two territorial adult pairs that I couldn't find out of the 69 total wintering pairs were the Lobstick adults that had brought two chicks with them this fall, and the Grass Island pair. The Lobstick adults are always one of the earliest pairs to leave and first to get up to Canada and nest. Hopefully citizens will report seeing in migration this unusual grouping of two adults with two young. However, the young have lost most of the rusty brown juvenal plumage and closely resemble the adults unless one looks closely to see a little remaining brown on their head and necks. The young are just about full grown now, although they won't be old enough to mate and raise chicks of their own for at least 2 more years. The Lobstick family last fall migrated from Saskatchewan, Canada to Aransas, Texas in 8 days. They won't make the return trip as quickly since I'm guessing the nesting grounds will remain covered with ice and snow for several more weeks. They should complete the 2,400-mile migration in 3 to 4 weeks and be nesting by the end of April.

Currently there are already hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska, and yet only a half dozen whooping cranes are headed north. Here’s a question for you:

Challenge Question #6:
Since both sandhill cranes and whooping cranes nest in the far north, why do whooping cranes migrate about 1 month later than their sandhill crane cousins? (Hint: The answer involves the time the sandhills spend on the Platte River.)

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator

Try This! Log the Main Flock’s Spring Departure
A Reminder: The Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock is the only naturally occurring wild migratory population of whoopers in the whole world, and this entire flock was down to only 15 birds in 1941. That means every whooper alive today is a descendent of those 15. Every whooper alive today either hatched at the Canadian nesting grounds OR is a descendant of a whooper that hatched there. Now that main flock is beginning the journey north to their nesting grounds, which they’ve done for centuries. Keep track of this flock’s spring departures with Tom’s census reports, coming weekly in April:

Whooping crane #107 with Sandhill cranes at Hiwassee. Which is which? Photo OM/WCEP

Help For Crane Spotters: ID Practice
With migration underway, would you know a whooper if you saw one? What traits set cranes apart from other birds? Develop an eagle eye for cranes with our many photos and tips, here:

Besides the sites above, there’s a place where EVERYONE can go see cranes now. Read on!

Crane Cam on the Platte River
Hooray! “One whooping crane was observed March 8 south of Grand Island on the Platte River,” came the exciting news from Wally Jobman. Each spring, Wally reports to us and also compiles migration records for the U.S. from his USFWS office in Grand Island, Nebraska. The Platte River is an important staging area for whooping cranes along their migration route from southern Texas to northern Canada. Every year, thousands of other birds also rest and forage on the sandbars and estuaries of the river. People travel from far and wide to see and listen during migration season. Now YOU can watch the sandhills and (we hope) whooping cranes—-by clicking on a crane cam on the Platte River!

Click to enlarge

Wally says, “The weather for the rest of this week will be in the 70’s with south winds. Sandhill crane numbers on the Platte will likely peak this week.” Why are south winds important to migrating cranes?


Are You Ready for Satellite Tracking? Links to Lessons
With whoopers in the air, you may wonder why we don’t have a map and satellite data on the Eastern ultracranes this week. The PTT data we have so far has been sporadic and does not provide a consistent tracking for any of the cranes. We hope that will change by our next report (one week from today). Meanwhile, here are some tips and background lessons to help you get ready for satellite tracking:

ICF tracker Lara Fondow.
Photo Laura Erickson
Photo OM

Tracking with Radio Telemetry: Challenge Question #7
Every Whooping Crane in the new flock being reintroduced to Eastern North America wears a leg band with a radio-tracking transmitter. Project biologist Dr. Richard Urbanek and tracker Lara Fondow keep track of the cranes 24/7 once they are free flying and migrating. How? See photos of Lara’s tracking vehicle, close-ups of the radio transmitters worn by each crane, a video of Lara explaining how tracking works, and fun journaling questions:

Then come back and answer:

Challenge Question #7:
“What percentage of a crane's weight is the transmitter?”

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Unison Call.
Photo Sara Zimorski.

Who’s Calling? Discussion of Challenge Question #3
“Which is the male and which is the female in this photo of the unison call? Explain why you think so.”
Kris from Grade Two at Ferrisburgh (VT) Central School said the bird on the left was the male, which is correct. She used clues from the two birds’ sizes and coloration, which are good for telling the gender of MOST birds. That was good thinking, but here’s a surprising fact: a blood test is necessary to be certain of the gender with whooping cranes!
Mansi, Jessica, George, Nick, Caitlin, Alex, Cheyenne, Sabrina and Frank, all from Iselin (NJ) Middle School/grade 7, also correctly said the male was on the left and the female on the right. These students used clues from the paragraph that described the head position of the unison-calling cranes. They also used our “Meet the Flock” charts with information about the gender and leg bands.
Way to go, all of you!

Photo OM

Detectives Digging Deeper: Discussion of CQ #4
Last time we asked you to dig deeper into reasons for giving PTTs to #301, #309, and #312 by looking at the 2001 and 2002 history. “What do the birds who have strayed the most and been hardest to keep track of have in common? What do you think this has taught the WCEP leaders to help them choose birds for PTTs?” No one commented that all three PTT birds this year are females. Let’s hear more about the reasoning, as told by Heather Ray of Operation Migration:

Cranes 301, 309 and 312 were selected because
(a) They had high social status in the flock.
(b) They were not "trouble" birds....meaning no outward signs of aggression toward others. For example, personality notes about #312 say she ‘Likes to be part of the group during flights. Gets anxious if it is a lone crane with one of the ultralights, and keeps glancing at the main flock as if she would prefer to join them.’ AND, while #309 began as a very independent youngster, she soon evolved into a dedicated follower and fit in quite well with the other members of her cohort.
(c) Females in general will wander somewhat IF they are not attached to a male. The 3 girls that ventured west last summer were unattached, while all other females (exceptions #107, #214 and #209) that were associating with males remained in the vicinity of central Wisconsin, if not directly on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Male cranes tend to select the future breeding/nesting territory and bring their chosen females to this territory.
Thanks, Heather!

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to: jn-challenge-crane@learner.org
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #5 (OR #6 OR #7).
3. In the body of EACH message, give your answer to ONE of the questions above.

The Next Crane Migration Update Will Be Posted on April 2, 2004.

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