Fall Migration 2016 Looking Back 2001-2015

Waiting and Hoping for Success
November 20, 2016 by Jane Duden

Pair #24-09 and #42-09 DAR and the two PR colts #29 and #39-16 aat roost site in new snow
PR colts #29 and #39-16 with adults #24-09 and #42-09 DAR on November 19
Colleen Chase, Operation Migration

Colts in the Class of 2016 have been mostly on their own to figure out what cranes do in autumn. It's not what experts had in mind, and until recently only one colt had been adopted as was hoped for all of thie Parent-reared (PR) colts.

The latest developments raise hopes for a few more adoptions, and change is in the air as we wait and hope for success.

A recent turn to snowy, more wintery weather matched the timing for good news about the colts fondly nicknamed Mutt and Jeff. PR colts #29-16 and #39-16 may have finally learned to roost in safer wetland habitat. It's thanks to AWOL target alloparents #24-09 and #42-09 DAR, who reappeared just as the season's first snow fell. The adults got the colts to follow them to their marshy roost—a big relief to Brooke and Colleen, their human overseers. Ignoring safer wetlands close nearby, the two young colts had spent most nights in wide open fields since their release and the exit of target alloparents. For weeks, the colts hardly went more than a hundred yards away. Crane parents teach their young to roost in wetlands, which offer the safety of a watery moat so splashes of any predators would be heard in time to make an escape. Will adult pair #24-09 and #42-09 DAR now step up and stay in the role of alloparents for the two youngsters? It seems so! Now the colts barely want to leave the wetland! It's great that they have begun to hang out with the adults. Maybe when the older birds leave, these colts will take the hint and follow. Will they be able to keep up? Hope so!

Last week, PR #70-16 finally got his freedom from captivity. His injured wing healed, he was released November 16 in Marathon County, Wisconsin. He's now flying free near the territory of adult target pair #65-15 DAR and PR #27-14. He has associated with the adult whoopers as well as with Sandhill Cranes. "So far, so good!" says ICF's Hillary Thompson.

Joe Duff oversees PR #30-16. He reports that the colt and alloparents #4-12 and #3-14 have spent the last two weeks using a single field from dawn to dusk. The family keeps to themselves, choosing isolated surroundings close to water. The adults stay alert as the family fattens for fall migration.

"My chick is taking in the lessons his adoptive parents are teaching. His adults know what to expect and when they are ready, they’ll show him the way south without much fanfare," said Duff.

By contrast, wandering colts PR #31-16 and PR #38-16 are keeping their overseer Operation Migration's Heather Ray busy. She barely tracks them down and off they go again, leaving her driving the back roads in search of the elusive beep-beep from their transmitters.

“Sometimes I think I'm imagining hearing them because they're so faint," said Ray.

The beeps are consistent volume when the birds are stationary. Louder beeps indicate the birds are nearer than half a mile. The farther away, the fainter the beeps. Each day these two youngsters seem to be making it up as they go along, leaving us wondering what's next.

Meanwhile, we know that early girl PR #33-16 left alone on her first migration Oct. 25 and remains in Iowa. Will she stay or go? Alone or with buddies to show the way? Second to leave, PR #69-16 migrated to northern Indiana, choosing great habitat used by thousands of cranes each fall. She continued to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, where many whoopers and Sandhills spend winter. Hooray for her!

These results help us see the varying degrees of success with the Parent-Reared approach to growing the flock.

Heather Ray explains: "Good is that the young PR cranes affiliate with adults once released. Better is that they migrate with parents. Best is they migrate with and spend the winter with adults."

You're invited to make your own predictions for each of the Class of 2016.

With only one more month until the winter solstice, Whooping Cranes are on the move. Across North America, migratory cranes are spread over their range from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds.

By mid November, cranes from the eastern migratory population (EMP) were reported in WI, IL, IN, TN, KY and Alabama. (One pair always arrives at their Georgia wintering grounds on Thanksgiving!)

The first birds from the larger, natural flock in Canada arrived Nov. 2 at their Texas wintering grounds on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Another mild fall in the northern plains states seems to be contributing to a delayed migration, just behind even 2015's fall migration. Will the future see this trend continue? If so, how do you think it will affect the essential food chain and habitat along migration trails used by all the planet's migratory species? It's something to think about as we enjoy the miracle of another fall migration. More: