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Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Migration Update: April 30, 1998

Today's Update Includes:

Migration Route
Map by Claudia Fonkert
Macalester College

Latest Migration News

The spring migration of Whooping Cranes in the U.S. appears to be just about over. Tom Stehn and Wally Jobman both report that Whooping Cranes are well on their way to the nesting grounds in Canada! Tom also brings us up-to-date on the latest news from the Ultralight crane migrations.

Plus, we know that the Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles each spring to their nesting grounds in Canada, but did you know that for almost 30 years the location of the nesting grounds was a mystery? In today's report, we learn how this mystery was solved, thanks to Canadian Biologist Brian Johns.

Field Notes From Aransas

To: Journey North
From: Tom Stehn

April 29, 1998

Dear Journey North,
It is just about time for the earliest whooping cranes to be starting to build nests in Wood Buffalo National Park, in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Now that these Aransas/Wood Buffalo cranes are well on their way, I wanted to bring you up-to-date about the two Ultralight crane migrations I discussed in my earlier reports.

Clegg's Ultralight Cranes Successfully Fly North With The Spring
Two of the whooping cranes which flew behind Kent Clegg's Ultralight last fall between Idaho and New Mexico have survived the winter at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. And, in fact, they started the migration north on March 5. This was a major success, having shown that cranes led south in the fall have the internal urge to migrate north in the spring.

They did not follow the same route they had used travelling south, but headed along the major crane flyway towards Colorado. The two ultralight whoopers staged in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, and then apparently split up. One ended up near Craig, Colorado, and the other about 60 miles away near Baggs, Wyoming.

They were not in good habitat and one was staying right near a large powerline. Concerned about the safety of the birds, Kent Clegg captured the birds on April 25. They are currently in a pen back on Kent's ranch in southeastern Idaho, awaiting a decision on where they can be released.

Fly Away Back Home--Again!
In the saga of the ultralight sandhill cranes led south between Ontario and Virginia by Bill Lishman and Joe Duff of Operation Migration ("Fly Away Home" fame), after a brief 140-mile exploratory trip to the eastern shore of Maryland, the sandhills left Airlie, Virginia on March 28, this time headed in the right direction. They were sighted in Youngstown, New York the next day, and were in St. Catharines, Ontario on March 30. They ended up less than 50 miles from where they were fledged.

As the sandhills wandered in Ontario and kept getting into trouble, Bill and Joe rounded the flock up on April 11, and actually flew them behind the ultralight again, returning back to where they were raised. In this last leg of their return home, the sandhills took advantage of thermal currents, spiraling up as high as 5,000 feet, and then gliding downwards to keep with the plane. In their migration north, they had learned to fly like the wild cranes.

It's A Real Success Story!
These Ultralight migration results were spectacular, proving that even without the stimulus of wild cranes present to show them a migration, cranes will migrate north in the spring. Yes, the birds were too tame, ending up in a schoolyard, a soccer field with a game going on, a farmer's barnyard, etc. But now the experiment can be repeated with more effort put into keeping the birds wild and afraid of humans.

Already it is time to start planning and raising birds for the next round of experiments this fall.

Until next time,
Tom Stehn

Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Austwell, Texas

Discussion Of Challenge Question # 8

In the last Update, we asked you to look at the satellite weather images and tell us why winds on April 21 and 22 might have prevented the Rattlesnake Island family of cranes at Aransas from departing?

The satellite images showed that winds on April 21 and 22 were from the north, which would have made the cranes' northward flight quite challenging. In contrast, the winds on April 20 were from the south and would have given the cranes a helpful tailwind!

Field Notes And Migration Data From The Great Plains

To: Journey North
From: Wally Jobman

April 28, 1998
The spring migration in the U.S. appears to be about over. There could still be sightings of a few stragglers.

The following confirmed sightings have been reported since my April 21 update:


Wally Jobman
USFWS Ecological Services
Grand Island, Nebraska

News And Mysteries From The Whooping Crane Nesting Grounds

To: Journey North
From: Brian Johns

April 29, 1998

Dear Students,
Whooping Crane migration is progressing and many of the adult breeding birds have already moved through Saskatchewan and are now on the nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo. The cranes that will be arriving here in the next couple of weeks are mostly the subadults. A subadult crane is a 1 to 3 year old bird that hasn't begun to nest yet.

A Long-Unsolved Mystery--Where Did The Cranes Nest?
In case you didn't know, the wetlands of southern Saskatchewan that the cranes now use during migration, once provided nesting areas for Whooping Cranes. The last documented nests of these cranes in Saskatchewan date way back to 1927. This is around the same time that some of your grandparents or even great grandparents were being born.

After that time, however, and up until 1954, the whereabouts of the Whooping Crane nesting area remained a unsolved mystery! It was known that the Whooping Cranes wintered in southern Texas along the Gulf of Mexico, and that they migrated north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and into Saskatchewan. But, then they disappeared! Extensive searches for the nesting grounds were carried out by the National Audubon Society and the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, but to no avail.

Mystery Solved!
Then in 1954 a forestry officer and a helicopter pilot, flying over a remote corner of Wood Buffalo National Park, discovered two adult Whooping Cranes and a flightless young. The mystery had been solved! When the nesting area was discovered in Wood Buffalo in 1954 the Whooping Crane population was only 21 birds. As you know this small population has grown to 182 this past winter.

Looking For Tiny White Spots
When I begin my surveys in early May I will be flying in a small single engine aircraft out over the Whooping Crane nesting marshes. These marshes are very large and extend for several kilometres in every direction. What I will be looking for are tiny white spots. When I see a white spot I will fly closer to see if these spots will turn out to be snow banks or whooping cranes. If they turn out to be Whooping Cranes I will fly lower to see if they have begun to build their nests. Once the nest is finished, which usually takes a couple of days, the birds will lay 2 eggs.

Stay tuned for my next update.

Brian Johns
Canadian Wildlife Service
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

The FINAL Whooping Crane Migration Update Will be Posted on May 14, 1998.

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