Originally published March 23, 2014 at 10:45 p.m., updated March 24, 2014 at 7:16 a.m.
Felipe Chavez-Ramirez has scars on the back of his hands and forearms from catching whooping cranes. Part of a team of researchers from multiple organizations putting lightweight GPS devices on whoopers, he’s the guy who first puts hands on the 5-foot-tall birds.
“The bird is standing up when I get there. When we’re standing next to each other, we’re looking into each other’s eyes,” the 5-foot-7 Chavez-Ramirez said. “It’s very feisty. Its primary weapon is its legs.”
The research team put tracking devices on 68 of the endangered birds of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population during the span of four years. That was more than 20 percent of population, said Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The GPS units, which are attached to the bird’s upper leg, send the location of the bird to a satellite four to five times a day, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.
Any day now, whooping cranes are expected to pass through the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Last year, the first whooping crane arrived on March 6.
In 2012 and 2011, the whoopers arrived on March 16.
“Statistically, their peak movement is the last week of March and the first two weeks of April,” said Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at the refuge, in Stafford County.
The arrival of the whoopers generally signals the spring migration. But there are signs that spring has arrived.
Already, flocks of sandhill cranes have been passing through the refuge on their way to the staging grounds on Nebraska’s Platte River. Other birds – four tundra swans were spotted in Quivira along with a handful of pelicans, 200 Baird’s sandpipers and thousands of ducks – are resting in the water-filled marshes.
So, you believe your commute to work is a challenging ordeal? Well then, try traveling from northern Canada to the Texas coast and back every year … under your own steam. Now that’s a long, risky 2,500 miles one way — 5,000 round trip commute.
Now, imagine you are a young 4 months old whooping crane recently hatched on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. You are traveling with your parents on your first migration from the Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. It seems unbelievable but wild whooping cranes families fly this 5,000 mile round trip route every year. They fly an average 200 miles a day in all kinds of weather not knowing what dangers lie ahead, where they will spend the night or what their next meal may be. After thinking about this, your commute to work in a nice, modern vehicle should seem like a piece of cake. (See Figure 1 for migration corridor.)
Astonishingly whooping cranes are not the only birds that make long migrations. On the North America continent more than 300 bird species migrate including cranes, waterfowl and song birds. At least 40 percent of all bird species are migratory. Billions of birds migrate every year between warm winter habitats and breeding grounds, often in the far north.
Unfortunately, increasing land development by humans is causing unprecedented threats to migratory and non-migratory birds and other wildlife. This is especially true for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population (AWBP) the only remaining wild self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. One of the greatest needs is for more secure habitats within the migration corridor and adjacent to the Aransas Refuge. Although portions of breeding and wintering habitat frequented by the wild population are protected, those places are also geographically isolated. Habitat within the AWBP migration corridor is largely unprotected.
In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a revised Whooping Crane Recovery Plan which recommended (among other objectives) measuring and protecting stopover habitat, creating wetland habitat and managing vegetation. Some of these recommendations are being accomplished. http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/wwd/science/intl_recovery_plan.html
The migration between Aransas, Texas and the Northwest Territories of Canada spans a continent. Many dangers exist in the approximately 5,000 miles the whooping cranes must travel every year. The birds must stop daily for feeding and rest. Stop over areas need an adequate supply of freshwater and food to improve the odds of the whooper’s survival. It would be most beneficial for daily stopovers to be located approximately every 50-100 miles along the migratory corridor. Due to varying weather patterns whoopers may need to stop unexpectedly. Additionally, birds having to fly too far in a day may reduce their overall health and fitness.
Until recently, little was known about where and when some whoopers stop over. Developing a comprehensive analysis of their migratory flight patterns that identifies the most critical areas and suitable habitat ensures the cranes continue to be viable. To learn more about the AWBP, the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began banding and tracking birds from the population in 2009. The purpose of the project is to document whooper locations, monitor their survival and identify their stop over locations. It is essential that all interests work together to help protect and manage whooping crane habitats as well as avoid destroying or degrading already well documented crane stopover sites.
Attention needed: Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) believes that much more attention is needed to properly protect and manage the only remaining wild self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. This flock has served as the “Noah’s Ark” for several efforts attempting to establish additional migratory and non-migratory flocks. The only remaining repository of genetic material from the original flocks of whooping cranes is embedded within the AWBP population. Therefore FOTWW believes it is essential to provide the utmost care for this population.
Experimental projects: Several attempts have been, and are being made to establish new experimental flocks of whooping cranes. These projects are attempting to establish additional self-sustaining whooping crane populations in accordance with the International Recovery Plan for the Whooping Crane. The projects are under the guidance of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Young whoopers are initially hatched and reared in captivity and then introduced into wild habitats using several methods. One project trains young whooping cranes to migrate between wildlife refuges in Wisconsin and Florida in an Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). Some of these whoopers have begun nesting and have raised several young. The migration corridor for these EMP birds is depicted in figure 1.
Another project is attempting to start a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. These whoopers are also reared in captivity and introduced directly into the White Lake wild habitats. Conservationists are hopeful that these two projects will be successful. Until these two flocks establish themselves by reproducing and adapting to the natural environment, they are considered as experimental.
Beginning in 1993, a flock of Whooping Cranes was reintroduced in the Kissimmee Prairie in central Florida. An average of 20 chicks, hatched and reared in captivity, was released at the Florida site each year in an effort to establish a new flock of non-migratory whoopers. Some of these birds matured and began nesting. In 2002, the first whooping crane in this flock fledged. This Florida non-migratory flock is no longer receiving release captive reared whooper chick. It experienced high mortality and low reproduction. Biologists continue to monitor the remaining birds in the Florida non-migratory flock to study the problems but this project is now inactive.
Whooping cranes are an endangered species and are considered to be the symbol of conservation in North America. Whooper interests are working persistently and hoping for more successes in the conservation of these magnificent birds.
by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers
To learn more about the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping crane population, the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began banding and tracking the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane population in 2009. The purpose for this project is to document their locations, monitor survival and their stop over locations.
Since the study began, many key areas have been identified where the Whooping cranes stop over during migration. We did not know about many of these places until this study. Now that habitat around Aransas NWR and along the flyway corridor is under development pressures, hopefully some of these key stop over areas can be purchased, conserved, and protected to ensure that there will always be habitat available for the wild ones as they migrate along the flyway corridor.
Below is a video published February 10, 2014 by Texas Parks and Wildlife showing the capture and banding of and adult whooping crane wintering at Aransas NWR. – Friends of the Wild Whoopers
The following report gives a more in depth explanation of the whooping crane tracking study project and its objectives.
The Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began in 2008 as a research project to use Platform Transmitting Terminals with Global Positioning System capabilities (GPS-PTTs) as a means to advance knowledge of whooping crane breeding, wintering, and migratory ecology including threats to survival and population persistence and to provide reliable scientific knowledge for conservation, management, and recovery of whooping cranes.
The Partnership is comprised of the Canadian Wildlife Service, Crane Trust, Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, with support from the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, International Crane Foundation, and Parks Canada. Partners agree the opportunity to mark wild whooping cranes with GPS technology will greatly enhance our knowledge of whooping cranes and enable us to assess risks they face during their entire life cycle. To date we have captured and attached GPS-PTTs to 31 juvenile whooping cranes at breeding sites in Wood Buffalo National Park and 24 adult and 2 juvenile whooping cranes at wintering sites at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Capture teams consist of individuals with experience handling endangered cranes, including a licensed veterinarian.
At capture, the veterinarian performs a health check on each crane, which includes a general external examination, blood collection for pathogen, toxin, and
genetic screening, and fecal collections for parasite evaluation. Captured birds are marked with a GPS-PTT attached with a two-piece leg band that weigh approximately 72 grams, which represents <1.5% of body weight of adult whooping cranes. The GPSPTTs have solar panels integrated on all exposed surfaces to maximize battery recharge and provide an equipment lifespan of approximately 3–5 years. Transmitters are programmed to record 4 GPS locations/day which provides us detailed information on roosting sites, diurnal use sites, and general flight paths. Transmitters upload new data on a 56-hour schedule which generally allows us to identify mortality events fairly quickly when they occur. As our sample of marked cranes is reaching peak numbers, GPS-marked cranes provided >15,000 locations during winter 2012-2013. Expectations and excitement among research partners has increased and we have begun to explore
the volume of rich information provided by marked individuals.
In addition to collecting information provided by the GPS-PTTs, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Crane Trust are conducting a ground-based study spanning from northern Texas to North Dakota to evaluate habitats telemetry-marked whooping cranes have used as stopover sites during migration. The ground-based stopover site evaluations allow
researchers to collect time-sensitive data that would be difficult or impossible to measure remotely and have enabled us to learn a great deal about conditions surrounding stopover sites that may have attracted whooping cranes to the area. Where many stopovers occur on privately owned lands, these evaluations depend largely on landowners allowing researchers access to their properties and we are grateful for the
access landowners have provided us during the past several migration seasons. Upon completion of the research projects, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program plans to use information obtained via telemetry and at stopover sites to create and manage similar habitats along the central Platte River in Nebraska.
Dave Baasch Platte River Recovery Implementation Program
***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****