Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Telephone: (512) 286-3559/3533
The whooping crane program made progress throughout the summer thanks to continued involvement by Jim Lewis following his March, 1997 retirement, and an excellent job done by Kathy Granillo (USFWS, Albuquerque) as Acting Coordinator. Kathy was surprised at how much work was required with whooping crane issues directed at her. My thanks to both Kathy and Jim who have continued to be involved with various projects. Thanks also to George Gee, Dwight Knapik, and Scott Swengle who provided updates for this report, and to Sue Forbis for distribution.
I was appointed Coordinator in September, just as my busiest time of year at Aransas got underway. But I hope the transition has gone well. Two things have occurred at Aransas to successfully combine the Aransas Refuge Biologist position with Coordinator duties.
1) The refuge hired a second clerk, a position long vacant. Sue Forbis joined the staff in October and has been a big help with whooping crane business.
2) Some of the non-crane refuge biologist duties have been handed over to Manuel DeLeon, the "other" biologist at Aransas.
Here is an update on whooping crane activities over the past nine months.
An estimated 144 adults and 16 juvenile whooping cranes migrated north in the spring of 1997. One subadult that had apparently wintered in the Texas Panhandle, and 1 juvenile that wintered in an unknown location, were present on the Platte River in mid-March. One whooper was confirmed in Saskatchewan on April 6.
Spring migration sightings occurred between March 9 and May 25. Sightings compiled by Wally Jobman were reported from Oklahoma (1), Kansas (5), Nebraska (14), South Dakota (4), North Dakota (5), and Saskatchewan (19). On April 15, a total of 32 whoopers were confirmed present in the central U.S. One whooper was still present at Aransas the first week in June but did finally migrate.
Activities in Wood Buffalo National Park included aerial surveys May through August. With the successful production of whooping crane eggs from the captive flock, no eggs were picked up from Wood Buffalo in 1997, the first time in years that no eggs were removed. Park Ranger/Graduate Student Doug Bergeson carried out whooping crane research throughout the summer. USFWS aircraft piloted by Jim Bredy with Tom Stehn as observer helped Brian Johns with production surveys in mid-June and then completed aerial infra-red photography of the nesting grounds.
Water levels were considered very good in 1997. Production from a record 51 nests totalled a record 58 chicks, including 16 sets of twins. In mid-August, between 32 and 36 chicks were still surviving, including two sets of twins.
In the fall, one subadult whooping crane hit a powerline in Saskatchewan and died. The first whooper arrived at Aransas on October 21. One hundred twenty-two whoopers arrived between October 31 and November 6. Record numbers were broken on the November 13 census with 169 total birds, including a record 29 chicks and 1 set of twins. These are the first twins to arrive since 1964, the last year before the start of many subsequent years of picking up some (but never all) of the second eggs from Wood Buffalo. The flock at the end of November totalled 171 birds at Aransas, with the peak population anticipated to be around 180 after all the birds arrive.
Habitat conditions look excellent at Aransas. Blue crabs and wolfberries are abundant. Flooding fall rains have filled refuge wetlands and lowered marsh salinities dramatically. In August and September, Dr. Bruce Pugesek and Mike Baldwin of the National Wetlands Research Center (BRD-USGS) in Lafayette, LA initiated blue crab research at Aransas with monthly sampling scheduled throughout the winter.
Despite no funds appropriated by Congress for the $18 million Section 216 Aransas/GIWW project in FY 97, the Corps of Engineers went the extra mile and carried out three construction projects in crane critical habitat during the summer. Geotubes to stop erosion were placed in Sundown Bay at the refuge ($367,000) and at Welder Flats ($106,000) to test sediment foundations. An additional 2,000 feet of refuge shoreline was protected with cement mats. Section 216 funding got underway with $2.8 million appropriated for construction in FY98 out of $7 million requested. Construction for the entire project is scheduled for completion in the year 2000 if funding is obtained.
During the summer, major seismic gas exploration projects were carried out on the north half of Matagorda Island, at Welder Flats, and adjacent bays. Numerous time was spent issuing permits and monitoring field work. Basically, all marsh access was done with airboats and/or aluminum track buggies to minimize damage to the habitat. That equipment "compresses and thins" the vegetation, but does not leave permanent ruts.
Japanese television (KEI) visited Aransas in early November to finish filming a story on whooping cranes. Earlier this year, they had traveled to Wood Buffalo and Florida.
Aransas Americorps enrollee Cinda Massey has begun graduate work at TAMU-College Station. She will use GIS techniques to analyze habitat in whooping crane territories.
Graduate student Ken Jones at TAMU-Kingsville has successfully extracted whooping crane DNA from fecal material. This is a major breakthrough and he is continuing to learn much about the genetics of the whooping crane population.
Researchers were disappointed that no eggs were produced from the one nesting pair of Florida whoopers that has built numerous nesting platforms the last two years. To make matters worse, the male from the pair disappeared and was listed as mortality from unknown causes. However, the continued good survival of birds released the last few years will allow many new pairs to reach breeding age in the next few years. A second pair was observed copulating in spring, 1997. As many as 6 pairs may form by 1998. Production was good from captive facilities in 1997 so that approximately 25 birds will be shipped to Florida in 1997-98. This is a considerable accomplishment since 8 whooping crane juveniles were also supplied to the western ultralight project. During 1996-97, 28 whooping cranes were released in Florida. Plans call for the continued release of between 20-30 birds a year for several more years until the flock can become self-sustaining.
At the end of summer, 65 adult whoopers survived in Florida from 128 total birds released. Survival was 35 % in the first year (1993) but increased to 67 % (1996). Three were killed by bobcats in September, 1997 during a time period when a few whoopers sometimes appear listless. Another died from aspergillosis. In November, three subadults died all together colliding with a powerline. At the end of November, there were 58 adult whooping cranes surviving in Florida. Seven juveniles were flown from ICF on November 05 and soft-released November 19. Sixteen birds from Patuxent are scheduled to be shipped to Florida in February, 1998.
Most of the whoopers are staying within 50 miles of their release site. However, 4 birds in February, 1997 moved northwest of Gainesville about 200 miles from their release site. One of these was killed by a bobcat and a second bird died of aspergillosis. The two remaining Gainesville whoopers may be captured and transported back to the release area at the end of 1997.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN POPULATION
The Rocky Mountain whooping crane population was designated as "experimental/nonessential" in the July 21, 1997 Federal Register. This change removes crane critical habitat from areas in Idaho, Colorado, and New Mexico. This affects the 2 or 3 remaining cross-fostered birds in the wild and the 3 surviving ultralight whoopers.
Negotiations were required before Idaho issued a permit for the import of whoopers for the ultralight experiment. Idaho and Wyoming were concerned about the impact the ultralight whoopers might have on an expanded sandhill crane hunt. The Pacific Flyway Council felt the experiment should be done somewhere in the East. The Service assured the States that this was a one-year experiment and promised to monitor the ultralight whoopers and move them out of sandhill crane hunt zones.
The ultralight experiment was designed to see if whooping cranes would follow an aircraft and learn a migration. This research was done to test a technique and was not meant as a stepping stone for continued re-introduction of whooping cranes in the Rocky Mountains.
The Service has a new brochure on whooping cranes which includes the ultralight project. Call if you want some of the brochures. It was written to educate sandhill crane and geese hunters how to tell the birds apart and to explain the ultralight project.
Sandhill eggs were picked up from the wild and hatched at the Clegg ranch. Kent Clegg travelled to Patuxent in the spring and helped raise/imprint eight whooper chicks. These birds were flown to Idaho at two weeks of age. One died from a coliform bacterial infection shortly after arrival in Idaho. A second died of aspergillosis. Two of the whoopers died after attempting to fly in the pens and hitting the pen structure.
On October 13, Kent and five crew members started the migration leading 8 sandhills and 4 whooping cranes. Up to 4 sandhills were trucked daily because 8 birds was the maximum workable number to lead behind the ultralight. One sandhill was killed colliding with the plane, and one whooping crane was knocked down in Colorado by a golden eagle. After getting stitches to close two puncture wounds in the thigh, the whooper was trucked the rest of the way and recovered from its weakened condition. With very cooperative weather, the migration covered 800 miles in 9 days. The team arrived safely at Bosque del Apache NWR on October 21 with a large gathering of friends and media waiting. Kent led the ultralight cranes back and forth between a corn field and a river roost for several days until the birds began to make the movements on their own. One ultralight sandhill was shot north of the refuge during the opening weekend of the sandhill season, and one whooper was killed by a coyote.
A female whooper (not the bird injured by the eagle) was killed apparently by a coyote November 12 while roosting on the Rio Grande. River levels had dropped so that more sandbars and less deep water were present making the cranes more vulnerable to predation. The radio and bands were found in the river flood plain in thick salt cedar. The remaining ultralight birds are fully incorporated into the wild in a definite pattern using the river roost and refuge corn fields, and associating with wild cranes, including one cross-fostered whooper.
Six ultralight sandhills are surviving from the 1995 and 1996 projects. These birds have made the spring migration to the Rocky Mountain summer crane area. These birds will continue to be monitored by Kent Clegg and others.
The Festival of the Cranes was held November 15-17 at Bosque del Apache NWR. The turnout was tremendous. Visitors got to see the ultralight whoopers on special bus tours.
December 23 update: Two more whoopers are missing and presumed lost; one adult and one of the ultralight chicks; predation assumed at this point pending location of remains. Surviving cranes now currently at two adults and two chicks.
EASTERN ULTRALIGHT EXPERIMENT
Bill Lishman, Joe Duff and a team of researchers October 24 - November 13 led sandhill cranes along the north shore of Lake Ontario, crossing into the U.S. through Watertown, New York and successfully making it to Airlie, Virginia. They encountered horrible weather which greatly prolonged the trip. Generally, seven sandhills made the flight and six were trucked. Bill and Joe will work with some of the birds this winter and see which ones will migrate north in the spring. The birds are currently penned at Airlie. This experiment is important to see what the ultralight cranes will do in the spring since there will be no other sandhills around to initiate migration.
During summer flight training, a sandhill had collided with the ultralight that led to a crash landing, wrecked airplane, and injury to pilot Joe Duff. This demonstrates one of the hazards teaching birds to fly behind an ultralight. Great skill was demonstrated by all the ultralight pilots that safely led birds south this fall.
Twelve birds in the 1996 trucking migration led by Dave Ellis survived the winter on the Gila Bend, having been released one by one into the roosting pond of wild sandhills. This immediate integration with wild birds greatly aided survival. Eleven of the 1996 birds stayed behind when the wild birds left. Eight returned unassisted to the release area in the spring and seven returned to the Gila Bend area in the fall. The release birds migrated alone on the route they were taught.
Patuxent also sent four fully-winged breeding pairs of greater sandhill cranes to Arizona and released them on Mormon Lake. The lake dried up over the summer and birds became more vulnerable to predation. These naive birds survived through much of the 1997 summer on Mormon Lake but eventually all were lost to predators.
Studies have been initiated to assess a possible release site in Manitoba. John Cannon has made contacts with Louisiana and Florida and will assess the Marsh Island and Chassahowitzka release sites selected by the Recovery Team last winter. Dr. Felipe Chavez and graduate student Dawn Sherry will be sampling these two sites for whooping crane food resources this winter.
In 1997, 20 captive birds with 2 breeding pairs produced 12 eggs, but 8 were infertile. Three eggs of undetermined fertility were found broken, one egg by our original breeding pair, and two eggs by a new pair laying in 1997. One chick hatched but died at five days of age.
During regular fall health checks, one bird was re-sexed from male to female so Calgary now has 9 mated pairs and two un-paired females. Re-pairing with a new male shipped to Calgary will be delayed until a re-evaluation of the genetic relationships of the cranes is completed by the studbook coordinator.
INTERNATIONAL CRANE FOUNDATION
In 1997, eight captive whooping crane eggs were hatched at ICF, with six being isolation reared and two parent reared. Seven of the eight chicks survived and were sent to Florida on November 5 for soft release. Three other eggs, of which two later hatched, were shipped to Patuxent on May 2 for the ultralight experiment.
One new female, a four-year-old on exhibit, laid eggs for the first time. She and her mate will remain off exhibit, and a new pair will be put in the exhibit in 1998, where the large pond may stimulate them to start breeding.
Two adult whoopers died at ICF during the summer, leaving 30 adult birds, including five pairs that have laid eggs.
PATUXENT WILDLIFE RESEARCH CENTER
Patuxent currently has 40 adult and 17 young whooping cranes. In 1997, eight breeding pairs laid 55 eggs and from 30 fertile eggs, Patuxent hatched 29 chicks. Fertility in the six naturally fertile pairs continues at 70% while fertility in artificially inseminated pairs was 100% in 1997. Sixteen of the 17 young whooping cranes will be released in Florida this winter.
Patuxent provided eight and ICF three whooping crane eggs for the Rocky Mountain ultralight project. Patuxent hatched ten chicks from these eggs and sent eight to Idaho, seven from Patuxent and one from ICF eggs. Of the two chicks that stayed at Patuxent, one chick was found unsuitable for behavioral reasons and one chick died.
Bill Lishman and Joe Duff (Operation Migration) got 18 greater sandhill cranes from Patuxent for their ultralight project. With help from Operation Migration, Patuxent conditioned the chicks to follow the ultralight and Operation Migration taught the birds to fly behind the ultralight in Ontario. Seven of 13 cranes flew behind the ultralight from Ontario to Airlie, Virginia but they trucked the other six much of the way. Operation Migration will continue to fly with the penned birds at Airlie through the winter.
Other cranes raised at Patuxent included 18 Florida sandhills raised for an eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) study with Dr. George Ludwig of the U. S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Sixteen cranes seronegative for EEE were selected for the study and sent to Fort Detrick in July.
Dr. Glen Olsen and Dr. Harry Danforth at the Parasitology Institute at ARS Beltsville continue their work on a coccidiosis vaccine. In 1997, Patuxent raised 21 Florida sandhill cranes for the cocci study. Also, Patuxent with Dr. Mary Anne Ottinger is doing a fecal corticosterones, estrogens and androgens research project getting fecal samples from both wild and captive cranes. Patuxent also sent feather samples from sandhill and whooping cranes to Wenrui Duan at Ohio State University for development of a DNA sexing probe.
In 1997, Patuxent lost three whooping crane chicks to a bacterial infection traced to the drinking water. Testing revealed bacterial contamination in several of Patuxent's water sources. Chlorination of the well water for the crane colony should prevent a repeat of the contamination problem.
Kathy Granillo, Steve Nesbitt, Tom Stehn and others travelled to Patuxent September 9-10 for the annual science workshop. This event gathers collaborators, partners, and scientists to discuss ongoing and future research needs.
OTHER CAPTIVE SITES
Other sites holding captive cranes are San Antonio Zoological Gardens (4) in Texas, White Oak Conservation Center (2) and Lowery Park Zoo (1) in Fla.
The book Cranes: Their Biology, Husbandry, and Conservation edited by D. Ellis. G. Gee and C. Mirande received three awards for publication excellence. These included the Library Journal's Notable Government Documents for 1996, the Apex '97 Awards for Excellence, and a Second Place Award in the 1997 NAGC Blue Pencil competition for illustrated books.
Location Adult Young Total
Aransas/Wood Buffalo NP 142 29 171+*
Rocky Mountains 3 3 6
Florida 58 7 65
Subtotal in the Wild 203 39 242
* Additional birds are expected to arrive with 180+ anticipated.
Captive Populations Breeding
Adult Young Pairs Total
Patuxent WRC, Maryland 40 17 8 57
International Crane Foundation, WI 30 0 5 30
Calgary Zoo 20 0 2 20
San Antonio Zoological Gardens 4 0 2 4
White Oak Conservation Center, FLA 2 0 0 2
Lowery Park Zoo, Tampa, FLA 1 0 0 1
Subtotal in Captivity 97 17 17 114
WORLD TOTALS (Wild + Captive) = 356