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FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update: May 13, 2005

Today's Report Includes:

Glad News, Sad News
Crane #418 landed in Wisconsin on May 11! Although he is the only 2004 bird that has not yet completed spring migration to Necedah NWR, he is getting close. But where has he been?

Left and Middle: Crane #418 stops in Washington Park in metro Chicago—not a very safe place for a whooping crane! Photos Marc Monaghan.

Right: Crane #418 lands in safe Wisconsin wetlands on May 11—close, but not quite "home" at Necedah. Photo Richard Urbanek.

That’s the glad news. But on May 10 the remains of yearling #414 were found below the south reservoir of Yellow River Cranberry, where he had spent the time since arrival with #401, #407 and #408. He is believed to have been killed by a large predator during the night of May 2. (Our News Flash told you of #106's death on May 3.) How does the WCEP team feel at yet another loss in what’s been a bad year for the Eastern flock? See what ultralight pilot Joe Duff says:

Currently, the 43 birds of the Eastern flock are in 2 states and one province: Wisconsin has 38, Michigan has 4, and southeastern Ontario has 1. Find spring migration details here (These pages will continue to be updated as news comes in):

Today we thank Sara for a tremendous season of reporting and photos as she brings us up to date. THANKS, SARA!
Photo Heather Ray

The Three Wanderers: Recapture, or Not?
With Sara’s help, we’ve been following the Eastern flock’s #301, #309 and #318. These three have had unusual life stories as Michigan birds, South Carolina birds, and Ontario birds. While two of the lost wanderers have crossed over the border into the U.S., #309 is still in Canada. If they keep going west they could eventually make it home. On the other hand, an unconfirmed report says that the last member of this notorious group has been sighted southwest of Montreal in the Province of Quebec. Will the three birds be captured and relocated back to Wisconsin in hopes of reorienting them? This would not be the first time that whoopers from the Eastern flock had to be captured after becoming wild. For the birds’ sakes, it’s something experts only do as a last resort. How would YOU go about trying to capture a wild bird that’s 5 feet tall with a dangerously sharp bill? ICF Aviculturist Sara Zimorski tells us how it’s done:

Before you hear the rest of the news, use your cranium for. . .

Craniac Quick Quiz: True or False?
Are the following statements true or false? Read this report carefully and you'll find all the right answers.
T F 1. Each Fall since 2001, Ultralight planes have led captive-bred whooping crane chicks from Wisconsin to Florida in order to reintroduce a new flock of migrating whoopers in the Eastern US.
T F 2. The natural migratory flock's journey north from Texas to Canada is about 2,500 miles, while the reintroduced 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 natural Western flock and the new reintroduced 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 needed next year.
T F 6. WCEP partners wanted to find out if a chick would learn the fall migration route from Wisconsin to Florida by following experienced whooping cranes, so they left #418 behind when they took off with 12 chicks and the ultralights.
T F 7. Whooping cranes don't lay eggs and raise chicks until they are age three years or older.
T F 8. In 2004-2005 the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock finally passed the 200-bird mark, a real cause for celebration. The past year also brought a record number of 10 deaths within the reintroduced Eastern flock.
T F 9. The reintroduction of the whooping crane to its former range in eastern North America will take one more year to meet the goal of 125 birds.
T F 10. Every whooping crane alive today is descended from just 15 surviving wild whoopers in the early 1940s.

Yearling Cranes Practice Being Wild
There will be no more pens for the young cranes just returned to Necedah NWR. They’re on their own! This is the time for them to practice their wildness for real. These whoopers, hatched last spring, are (or soon will be) one year old. In terms of human lives, the HY 2004 cranes are not quite teenagers—at least, they’re not yet interested in dating. Whooping cranes usually start forming pairs while they are two and three years old. They probably won’t nest till they’re three, four or five years old—which is exactly what's now happening in the Eastern flock. In 2005, we celebrated the flock's very first eggs laid, even though both were destroyed. When will we see the first chicks hatched by ultra-cranes? Perhaps in 2006? Stay tuned!

During the next few months, the HY2004 chicks will break their bond with humans. They'll fine-tune their survival skills and become as free and independent as nature intended. During their journey north, they selected proper crane habitat and avoided people (except for #418's stop in Chicago's Washington Park!). These cranes we’ve watched so closely may live 20 to 30 years in the wild, and they will be the ancestors of what we hope will be a thriving Eastern flock.

We also look forward to seeing the Western flock adding to its numbers. It has taken 65 years for the flock to grow from a low of 15 birds in 1941 to the present population of just over 200. But the two flocks will never meet. This 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. We wish them well.

Final Field Notes from Brian in Canada
Brian has been traveling from his base in Saskatoon to Fort Smith in Wood Buffalo National Park to begin his breeding grounds surveys on May 14. It is about a 3-day flight for the cranes from Saskatoon staging grounds to their breeding grounds (1000 km) in the park, and it takes 3 days for Brian to travel there, too. He explains, "I spend about 2+ weeks there in May and conduct my nesting surveys. I then spend a couple of days with a helicopter to go to each nest and check on clutch size. After that I return to Saskatoon for a couple of weeks and then go back to Fort Smith for another couple of weeks. This trip in mid June is to check on hatching success of the nests. I return again in mid August for another couple of weeks to conduct the fledging success surveys and to record unison calls of the cranes to compare with the calls recorded on the wintering grounds. Each pair has a unique call and we use this to match unbanded pairs between their winter and summer territories."

THANKS, BRIAN! Brian Johns is Biologist at the staging grounds in Saskatchewan and the nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park. He is Canadian Leader of the International Crane Recovery Team, a WCEP Partner.

Final Field Notes from Martha in Nebraska
“It looks as though the migration has wound down to a trickle. I've received no confirmed reports of cranes in migration since last week, when 2 adult cranes were reported on April 30 and May 2, five miles southwest of Mandan, ND. There may be a few cranes still lingering in the U.S portion of the Flyway, but I don't expect many (any?) more sighting reports from the U.S. side.”

Thank you, Martha Tacha from the USFWS in Nebraska, for sending us news from your part of the migration trail between Texas and Canada!

Journey North is grateful to you, Tom Stehn, for all you teach us, and for your leadership in restoring this endangered species!

Final Field Notes from Tom at Aransas NWR, Texas
"The injured Lobstick juvenile is still at Aransas as of May 11, reports Tom Stehn. “It is looking much better and foraging on its own, but is still holding its head at a slightly abnormal angle.” Its injury has apparently kept it from migrating the 2500 miles to the Canadian nesting grounds. We asked Tom if the chick stays all summer, will it stay on the same territory? If so, will that be a problem in the fall when the adults return?

Tom replied: “If the chick stays all summer, it will probably remain in the same territory, primarily because it has no experience in other parts of the wintering area. If much of its territory dries up, it will move out to nearby areas to find food. In the fall, when its parents return, it will get chased out of the territory and will quickly learn what it is like to be a crane without a territory. After getting pecked at a few times, the crane (now a subadult) quickly learns not to let other cranes get too close. Subadult cranes quickly learn to respectfully retreat from adult cranes.”

Date # cranes estimated present at Aransas
March 23 182 + 32 = 214
April 6 130 + 27 = 157
April 13 27 + 7 = 34
April 27 0 + 1 = 1
May 11 0 + 1 = 1

Peak flock size in the 2004-05 winter was 217 (183 adults + 34 chicks). One adult and one juvenile died at Aransas during the winter, leaving the spring 2005 flock size at an estimated 215. All but one had initiated migration between March 19 and April 27.

Baby Book: Chicks Soon Hatching Like Popcorn
Before they even hatch out of their shells, the chicks hear the sound of the ultralight airplane engine so they get used to it. At two weeks of age or sooner, the chicks are introduced to the aircraft. In June or July, they’ll arrive via private plane at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin for “flight school” and their 1225-mile migration in October.

Busy with new chicks at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, Mark Nipper reports that chick #506 hatched on May 2 and #507 hatched out on May 4. “These two birds are cute as can be, of course. Chick 507 is a little…well ‘crazy.’ This little one runs around his pen screaming more than anything else. The poor little bird is healthy enough, it just needs time to calm down a bit.

“We found out that 501, 502, and 504 are females while 503, 505 and 506 are males. To determine this, we take a small sample of the eggshell and membrane to send to a lab for DNA tests. We all like to make guesses based on behavior, but we never know for sure until we get the results back.”
Whooping crane chicks are aggressive to each other for the first few weeks and must be trained individually until they learn to socialize. Chicks #502, #503 and #504 are each spending 10-15 minutes a day with the trike now. Swimming helps their legs grow straight and strong.
Chick #505 hatched May 1. After being all folded up inside an egg, this is probably a pretty comfortable position for a little baby. (Imagine if a crane couldn't sit like this in a storm!)

After they’ve all hatched, you can meet every new chick for the next ultralight migration in our “Meet the Flock: Hatch Year 2005” chart. Find the link to every year’s “Meet the Flock” chart here:

Photo WCEP
Egg Update: Discussion of Challenge Question #12 and Good News
Last time we asked “If the birds are behind in laying eggs for the 2005 ultralight migration, what might be some consequences?”

1. The age range will be so wide that training will be complicated. The older birds will be more advanced than the younger birds.
2. Older birds may pick on younger birds, and maybe even injure them.
3. Combining all the birds into one cohesive flying group before it's time to leave on migration will be very difficult with so many ages.
4. Flight endurance and skills of the youngest birds will take more time to develop, perhaps delaying the migration.

Sara Zimorski added: “A large age spread means more shipments from Patuxent to Necedah. This isn't necessarily a problem, but just more logistics that have to be worked out. One last but related thought is that birds may have to be split up and live side by side—but not together—in pens at Necedah, depending on how many small groups have been socialized before the shipping. There are three pens and that should work; but, if the birds don't all get socialized at Patuxent, sometimes the socialization has to continue at Necedah in order to get small groups together into a larger cohort with their pecking order worked out."

Are you surprised at all these effects from late eggs? Well, not to worry. This week Sara shares some good news about the egg laying at various captive breeding centers: “Things seem to have picked up and there are plenty of eggs available for the ultralight flock this year. The neat thing is we'll have eggs from (1) Patuxent, (2) ICF (from a different female than has contributed to WCEP in previous years), (3) ACRES (for the very first time), and (4) possibly the Calgary Zoo as well. This will mean new genetics in the flock because some of these birds have never contributed to this flock before. This is both fun and exciting, but also very important for the genetic health of this flock.”
(You may remember that every whooping crane alive today is descended from just 15 surviving wild whoopers in the early 1940s.)
Photo OM
Next for the Eastern Flock: Ultralight Migrations and Supplemental Releases
Ultralight pilot and Project Leader Joe Duff hopes to get a record 24 whooping crane chicks from those expected to hatch this year at the captive breeding centers around North America. The Whooping Crane Recovery Team decides how many will be given to the reintroduction program. Operation Migration pilots will start moving chicks from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland to Necedah NWR in Wisconsin in late June for "flight school." They will be trained to follow the ultralight aircraft at the same sites used to train the first four "ultra-crane" generations. It should be interesting to see how many of the returned wild cranes (the 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 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 four successful ultralight whooper migrations behind them, they hope to teach this same migration route to a new generation of captive-bred chicks (that means no adult wild parents) each fall for just a few more years. That means you can keep watching the story unfold with ultralight migrations for at least the next year or two.

The migration of this year's chick #418 began the next stage of the reintroduction: supplemental release, or releasing captive-bred chicks to see if they will follow the older, experienced whooping cranes when they leave Wisconsin on migration to Florida. The WCEP team will eventually phase out the ultralight planes if veteran "ultra-cranes" will take over and lead newly-introduced chicks on migration. They'll know they are successful when the next generation starts learning migration from the experienced ultra-cranes. The success of #418's migration is a good sign; this chick learned how to migrate by following some experienced ultra-cranes. The WCEP team has asked captive breeding centers for 6 to 8 chicks for supplemental release on the fall 2005 journey south.


In order to save the whooping crane, we need at least two more flocks that are independent from the original wild flock. These additional flocks will be insurance if a catastrophe (such as a hurricane, tornado, or disease outbreak) ever wipes out the original wild flock—the Aransas/Wood Buffalo cranes, now over 200 strong. The goal of WCEP's reintroduction project is to build a flock of 125 birds in the Eastern flock by 2020. With 43 birds so far—and perhaps 24 new '05 chicks coming—they're on the way. We'll keep telling their story, so please stay with us.

This sculpture is named Freedom, Liberty, and Courage. It stands on the new Eastern Flock's summer grounds at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. Do you think the sculpture's title is a good one? What would YOU name it?

Photo Wayne Kryduba

Craniacs, What's Your Score?
The answers to our true/false quiz at the top of the report:
T, T, T, F, F, T, T, T, F, T
Year-End Evaluation: Please Share Your Thoughts!
Please take a few minutes to share your suggestions and comments in our Year-End Evaluation. The information readers provide is critical for planning new initiatives and for improving Journey North. We'd appreciate your help. THANK YOU!

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Year End Evaluation
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This is the FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update for Spring, 2005. Thanks for joining us as whooping cranes soar into a hopeful future. Please come back in September to follow A RECORD number of Hatch Year 2005 chicks on their ultralight-led Journey South—-and come back next spring to find out what happens on their first unaided journey north. Here's to a wonderful summer for you—and the cranes!

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