An afternoon with a whooping crane family

By Val Mann – Guest Author

Very early Thursday morning Kim and I packed up Max (our car) and headed three hours north to the whooping cranes’ preferred staging grounds in farmers’ fields and sloughs. It was a warmish, beautiful, sunny day – perfect for a drive in the countryside.

Max doubles as a blind with the camera lenses through open windows. The car is a gold-brown colour and usually coated with a layer of grid road dust – perhaps blending with the golden harvested fields. Whatever the reason, wildlife tend to ignore the car.

Whooping crane
Whooping crane family foraging in the slough. Photo by Val Mann

Just over a grid road hill, a family of whooping cranes, parents and a colt, were foraging in a roadside slough. The family ignored us and continued to feed. At one point, judging from the behaviour, the parents wanted to roost and snooze in the warm prairie afternoon sunshine. Junior showed signs of being bored. After unsuccessfully trying to rouse the parents, the colt went foraging for snacks, wandering towards us. The parents kept a watchful eye on the youngster while they preened, but did not raise alarm. Eventually the colt returned to roost with the parents. Not that long after, a huge grain truck drove by and the cranes flew deep into the fields.

Wow, what an amazing experience to share time with them!

This was not a typical sighting. Normally the cranes are extremely human intolerant and keep at least 500 metres (about 1500 feet) from roads, humans, etc. The middle of a farmer’s field would be the norm.

Please note that we were actually a distance away – on a pullover off the far side of the road. The powerful super telephoto lens and post-production cropping make the birds appear considerably closer than they actually were.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is very thankful that Val Mann shared her adventure with us. We hope that you enjoyed it and the photos below of the family of wild whooping cranes that she sent along to go with her story. Be sure to click on the photos to enlarge.

Thank you, Val!

Whooping Crane
Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann

 

Whooping Crane
Whooping crane family preening together while roosting. Photo by Val Mann

 

Two whooping cranes: Junior and a parent, in flight. Photo by Val Mann
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Cows helping Whooping Cranes

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is continuing its project to encourage development and management of stopover habitats for migrating Whooping Cranes. We have visited military bases, Indian Reservations and some private lands within the six state migration corridor (TX, OK, KS, NE, SD and ND). Our mission is to provide advice to land managers about how to develop and/or manage existing ponds/wetlands to be useful as roosting/feeding sites for migrating Whooping Cranes. The cranes must stopover approximately 15 to 20 times during their 2,500 mile migration between Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting area and their wintering area at Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast.

Some management relationships discovered

During our field trips to the various sites we have learned about some management relationships that we had not been aware of. We learned that livestock, including cattle and bison can make some ponds/wetlands more suitable as stopover areas. Livestock normally walk around ponds until they reach a shallow area where they can safely enter the ponds and drink. As they are moving around they are also grazing and trampling vegetation on pond shores. Whooping Cranes use these same shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter the ponds to roost. We observed this relationship on numerous ponds/wetlands especially in North and South Dakota.

Whooping Cranes avoid certain sites

Whooping Cranes do not use ponds/wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore. They avoid sites anywhere they would have to move through dense vegetation where predators may be lurking such as shown in Figure 1.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 1. This pond’s shore area is covered with a dense growth of cattail vegetation. Whooping Cranes will not attempt to use ponds with these conditions. When selecting a pond where they can roost for the night, the cranes glide in (Fig. 2) and land on the shore. Then they walk into a shallow area of the pond and roost where they are safer from predators. Predators such as coyotes and bobcats can hide in dense vegetation and jump on Whoopers and kill them.
Whooping Cranes
Figure 2. Whooping cranes gliding onto shore of nearby pond. They will observe their surroundings to look for danger. Then they will walk into a shallow area of the pond to roost for the night. Because of their long legs and 5 foot height, they can defend themselves against predators while roosting in water. Whoopers landng by Diane Nunley

Fortunately, around some ponds, livestock have grazed and trampled the vegetation while getting a drink and grazing the more succulent vegetation (Figure 3).This results in more unobstructed shore areas that allow Whooping Cranes to use ponds as stopover sites.

Some concern has been expressed that livestock cause shoreline erosion and contamination of the stock dams/ponds that results in some murky, dirty water. While this may have some merit, FOTWW did not detect any serious problems. We carefully observed the water in the ponds visited and could clearly see the pond bottom in shallow areas. We also firmly believe that the advantages of the stock dams/ponds far outweigh any disadvantages. Use of the ponds/wetland water resources by numerous species and many thousands of individual wild animals has caused the military and Indian Reservation’s habitats to be much more productive.

Some ponds in excellent condition

Some of the stock dams/ponds on the areas visited are currently in excellent condition to serve as secure Whooping Crane stopover habitats. And some other ponds/wetlands could easily and inexpensively be developed into good habitats. However others are not useful for Whooping Cranes because cattails, bushes and trees are thick along the shore areas. On these latter ponds FOTWW recommends that they be managed for other wildlife species that prefer dense vegetative cover.

Importantly, FOTWW contends that it is not necessary or desirable to modify or manage all ponds for Whooping Cranes but rather focus on a subset with the best ponds and surrounding landscape characteristics. Open landscapes including pasture and crop land allows Whooping Cranes to easily locate the ponds and provides ready observation of any predator threats.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 3. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) while cattail (sp.) invasion has been restricted (B) due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide roosting sites for Whooping Cranes.

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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Farmer files federal lawsuit to prevent wind farm from starting, to protect Whooping Cranes

Farmer files federal lawsuit to prevent recently completed Pratt area wind farm from starting, to protect Whooping Cranes

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Wind farm project area

PRATT – A Pratt County farmer has filed a suit in federal court seeking to prevent a new wind farm in Pratt County from starting up because of the risk he believes it poses to Whooping Cranes.

Edwin Petrowsky, a former member of the Pratt County Zoning Commission, filed the suit Nov. 23 seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against NextEra Energy Resources.

Petrowsky contends the Ninnescah Wind Farm, which consists of 121 wind generators in the southeast quadrant of the county, is in the flyway of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane, which is an endangered species. The wind farm is expected to go online next week.

At last count, there was only an estimated 329 wild Aransas-Wood cranes in North America.

Petrowsky charges that NextEra is aware of the danger the project is creating, yet has failed to obtain an “incidental taking permit” that would allow the incidental killing of some birds under the Endangered Species Act.

NextEra spokesperson Steve Stengel said that the company has worked with state and federal authorities “all throughout development of the project” and that the siting of the turbines “has taken into account migratory flyways.”

“Whooping Cranes generally fly higher than the heights of the turbines,” Stengel said. “But, in working with the agencies, we have agreed to ongoing bird monitoring at the site.”

According to an earlier story in the Pratt Tribune, the company has agreed to bird and bat monitoring during its first year of operation, “to track mortality rates.” The farm is also in an area with a high number of bat hibernation sites.

Parts of the wind farm, which will generate 200 megawatts of electricity that Westar Energy is under a 20-year contract to purchase, are within 35 to 40 miles of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms, both designated as critical habitat for the whooping crane. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, another designated habitat, is also nearby.

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***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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Whooping Cranes are on their way to Aransas NWR

Whooping Cranes migrating south

Last Week, six wild whoopers, one of them a juvenile, were spotted in a field northwest of Cheviot Lake, SK with hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and some Snow Geese. Our friend and supporter Val Mann from Saskatchewan sent us a couple of photos and her observation. Again, we thank Val for her fantastic photos of the wild whoopers.

“Kim and I were out on the grid roads in the central part of Saskatchewan yesterday looking for whooping cranes.  We had seen a report describing six whooping cranes in a farmer’s field earlier this week and wanted to see if they were still there.  About noonish, we saw three of the cranes, still in the area.  They were in the field with a number of sandhill cranes, over a mile from the road. The photos show the whooping cranes very far off in the distance – even for a powerful telephoto lens.”

Whoopers from Wood Buffalo National Park heading for Aransas NWR

Whooping Crane
Whooping Cranes somewhere in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of Val Mann

Whoopers take flight

“About 45 minutes later, a very large flock of snow geese took to flight from a nearby slough.  As the snow geese approached the area with the cranes, the cranes stopped feeding and began to look skyward.   Shortly thereafter, the cranes took flight and flew towards a large lake just southeast of the field.”

Whooping Cranes
Whooping Cranes somewhere in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of Val Mann

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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