Archive for the ‘Florida Updates’ Category

Ultralight-led Whooping Cranes Arrive at Final Wintering Destination in Florida

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

January 21, 2010

For more information on the project and its partners, visit the WCEP website at:

Ten endangered whooping cranes arrived yesterday on their wintering grounds at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Citrus County, Florida. The other 10 “Class of 2009” ultralight-led cranes reached their final wintering destination at St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County, Florida on January 13.

These 20 cranes are the ninth group to be guided by ultralight aircraft more than 1,200 miles from Necedah NWR in central Wisconsin to the Gulf coast of Florida. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private organizations, is conducting the reintroduction project in an effort to restore this endangered species to part of its historic range in eastern North America. At 89 days, this was the second longest ultralight-led migration since WCEP began reintroducing whooping cranes. Unsuitable flying weather caused delays along the migration route.

“This Class of 2009 brings another exciting year for this great partnership, and it gets us one step closer to seeing the recovery of this magnificent species,” said Michael Lusk, Refuge Manager at Chassahowitzka NWR. “The staff at Chassahowitzka NWR worked hard to make sure that everything was ready for the arrival of the birds. We are very excited to be a part of this project and to be able to share our excitement with our partners at the St. Marks NWR.”

This is the second year the cranes have wintered at two separate locations. The decision to split the flock came after the loss in February 2007 of 17 of the 18 Class of 2006 whooping cranes in a severe storm at Chassahowitzka NWR. WCEP hopes the two wintering locations will help reduce the risk of another catastrophic loss.

In addition to the 20 birds led south by project partner Operation Migration’s ultralights, nine cranes made their first southward migration this fall as part of WCEP’s Direct Autumn Release (DAR) program. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reared the cranes at Necedah NWR and released them in the company of older cranes from whom the young birds learned the migration route. One of the DAR birds arrived in Lake County, Florida earlier this month. Seven of the cranes migrated to Tennessee and one is located in Indiana. All of the DAR birds are in the company of older whooping cranes. This is the fifth year WCEP has used this DAR method.

Whooping cranes that take part in the ultralight and DAR reintroductions are hatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. Chicks are raised under a strict isolation protocol and to ensure the birds remain wild, handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.

In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft surrogates, south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. Once led south, the cranes are able to migrate on their own, without assistance, in following years.

In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices they make both along the way and on their summering and wintering grounds.

Most graduated classes of whooping cranes spend the summer in central Wisconsin, where they use areas on or near the Necedah NWR, as well as other public and private lands.

Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 550 birds in existence, approximately 375 of them in the wild. Aside from the 85 birds reintroduced by WCEP, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 30 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; try to remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view whooping cranes.

Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.

To report whooping crane sightings, visit the WCEP whooping crane observation webpage at:


Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator,U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has prepared a lengthy, detailed report concerning the 2008 – 2009 whooping crane population. The following summary of the report provides much new information. To read the entire report, you may download it by clicking here. The download is a PDF file.

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population (AWBP) of whooping cranes reached a record population of 270 at Aransas in December, 2008. The number would have been substantially higher but for the loss of 34 birds that left Aransas in the spring, 2008 and failed to return in the fall. Faced with food shortages from an “exceptional” drought that hammered Texas, record high mortality during the 2008-09 winter of 23 cranes (8.5% of the flock) left the AWBP at 247 in the spring, 2009. Total flock mortality for the 12 months following April, 2008 equaled 57 birds (21.4% of the flock). The refuge provided supplemental feed during the 2008-09 winter to provide some cranes with additional calories. Two whooping cranes failed to migrate north, but survived the hot and dry 2009 Aransas summer.

A below-average 2009 production year in Canada with 22 fledged chicks from 62 nests was half the production of the previous summer and is expected to result in a break-even year for the AWBP. Threats to the flock including land and water development in Texas, the spread of black mangrove on the wintering grounds, and wind farm construction in the migration corridor all remained unabated in 2009.

The Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Project documented 79 confirmed sightings of whooping cranes in the U.S. Central Flyway during fall, 2008 and 38 sightings in spring, 2009.

The captive flocks had a very good production season in 2009. Twenty-nine chicks were reintroduced into the eastern migratory population, bringing that flock to 106 total birds. Three chicks of high genetic value were held back for the captive flocks.

Production in the wild from reintroduced flocks in 2009 was disappointing. In Florida because of the continuing drought, only 4 of 11 pairs nested and fledged 1 chick. In Wisconsin, all 12 nesting pairs abandoned their nests. Five or 6 pairs re-nested hatching 2 chicks, but neither chick survived. The major hurdle of nest abandonment in Wisconsin must be overcome for that reintroduction to have a chance of success. Although efforts to clear this hurdle should continue, the Recovery Team recommended starting reintroductions in different areas, both looking for other release sites in Wisconsin for the migratory whooping cranes, and starting a nonmigratory flock in Louisiana.

In 2009, total production could not quite keep up with mortality, with the total population of wild and captive birds dropping from 538 to 534 during a12-month period. The drop was primarily due to the high mortality experienced by the AWBP.

Florida Non-Migratory Whooper Flock – Update #6

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Marty Folk, Avian Research, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has provided WCCA with Update #6 for the Florida Non-migratory whooping crane flock. The Florida flock has experienced some serious difficulties during the past two years. Drought conditions in the whoopers Florida range have made the situation much worse. Yet, the Florida Avain Research team continues to monitor the whoopers.

Marty Folk advised, “Perhaps you have been waiting by your computer for my next report…sorry to take so long. I’ve been waiting to announce that our whooping crane chick fledged. The chick is 111 days old today. It is likely the chick fledged long ago, but I haven’t reported it yet, because we have not verified this. There are at least several reasons…this is a relatively immobile pair that doesn’t go anywhere. Apparently their territory supplies everything they need; there is no hurry to fly. Secondly, about the time the chick would have been fledging, the male shed his flight feathers (It takes 44± days to regrow them). Because crane families like to “stick together”, this means the family is grounded for a while. We expect the male to be flight-capable again in a couple weeks.”

Marty adds, “As expected, we saw no further nesting after my last report below. We ended the season with 4 nests and 1 chick.”

Florida Non-Migratory Whooping Crane Update #5:

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Marty Folk, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that, “The two active whooping crane nests described in my 5th Update have failed. One nest failed on Saturday and one Sunday. Visits to the abandoned nests revealed no eggs or remains. Water levels had declined such that it would have been possible for mammalian predators to approach the nests without getting their feet wet. Normally the birds abandon at this point so the nest failures were predictable. The Polk County nest was in a large lake that was not immune to the drying effects of this drought. We still could see a nesting (our latest laying date is 27 May) but not likely from the 2 pairs that just failed. The chick in Osceola County is now 60 days old.”

Marty explained that, “The South Florida Water Management District recently reported that the
period from November 2008 through April 2009 ranked as the driest
six-month period in South Florida history based on records dating back
to 1932. The trouble is, we began this drought back in 2006 and had
already accumulated a large deficit prior to November last year.
However, this week a stalled front is bringing rain to Florida! We’ve
had 3.2 inches of rain at my house this week (it seems like the Great
Flood), and some areas have gotten more. It is “too little too late” for
this breeding season, but is a start for rehydrating the thirsty

Florida's Non-Migratory Whooping Crane Flock – 2009 Update #4:

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Great news!
Marty Folk,Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued his second update report for the day (5-5 09). Marty notified us that, “The minute I sent out my update #3 on Florida’s non-migratory flock of whooping cranes (see below) we discovered another nesting (actually a re-nest). The pair who had the 2nd nest (in Lake County, see report below), have re-nested and currently have 1 egg, just laid since yesterday’s check of the pair. We moved our video surveillance equipment and began recording their behavior.”

WCCA is thrilled to send you Marty Folk’s” report. Hopefully, this nest will be another success. We will keep you posted.

Florida's Non-Migratory Flock – 2009 Update #3:

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Marty Folk, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist reports that: “Earlier I reported on a whooping crane chick in ‘nest #1’.The chick from nest #1 still survives and is 46 days of age today (May 5, 2009). The eggs that we collected from ‘nest #2′ showed no sign of embryos. The pair at nest #2 produced fertile eggs during their previous 3 nest attempts and we suspect that winter rainfall was insufficient to stimulate copulation or some aspect of egg or sperm production. We now have a new nest by a pair in Polk County. They are nesting in a lake because all marshes in the area are dry.”

Marty advised,”We continue intensive daily monitoring in order to document survival and movements of the whooping cranes. Also, as you may know, we have identified that male whooping cranes aren’t living as long as females, and that male whooping cranes are more vulnerable to collisions with power lines than females. We suspect this may be associated with the males’ propensity to lead the flocks and be the defenders of the flocks. We are also collecting behavioral data to help us learn more about this. We also continue to gather data on whooping crane feather molt. Every other year, on average, adult whoopers molt all their flight feathers and are grounded for an average of 44 days while the new feathers grow.”

Marty stated that in the area of Florida’s non-migratory whooping crane habitat there is no sign of relief here from the drought. The long days with high temperatures at 90 degrees really bake the landscape.

Summary of Nesting in the Three Whooping Crane Flocks

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Brian Johns, Wildlife Biologist, Canadian Wildlife Service sends a brief report on the most recent events concerning the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane flock, the Wisconsin-Florida migratory experimental flock and the Florida non-migratory experimental flock.

Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock:
Brian reports that, “Some whoopers that departed their Aransas, Texas wintering habitat have migrated to Canada while others continue on their way. The cranes are in the process of completing their migration to Wood Buffalo. There have been fewer sightings in Canada this spring compared to other years, which may mean that the birds have had good migration conditions and have moved on through or that there are still a few birds to come. Habitat conditions on the breeding grounds appear to be near normal and Lea Craig-Moore will begin nesting surveys in about 10 days.”

Brian advised that, “Twelve nests were initiated this spring in Wisconsin and as of May 3 all nests had failed.”

Biologist Johns wrote that, “Three nests were initiated by whoopers in Florida’s non-migratory flock. One nest failed, one is being incubated and one has a 46 day old chick.”

Second Update Florida's Non-Migratory Whooper 2009 Breeding Season

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Marty Folk, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that “One whooping crane chick hatched from the nest described in my first update. Today the chick is 24 days old. A second nest was initiated in Lake County on 4 March. This 2nd nest was incubated longer than necessary (something that never happens in Wisconsin!) and on Friday we collected 2 non-viable eggs for necropsy. We video-taped both nests this year with surveillance equipment that recorded the activity at the nest during all daylight hours. We will be analyzing this pool of video, along with other footage previously recorded through the years, to determine if incubation behavior by the birds may have been associated with nest success.”

Marty advises, “We’ve not witnessed any other nesting activity this spring. Because of drought, there is little suitable habitat available.Beginning in March we began intensively monitoring the flock in order to collect more data to help us understand what happens to the birds when they go missing. In March, 3 field people drove 9660 miles, flew 28.6 hours, and spent long days monitoring the flock. So far we’ve recovered no dead birds (we need birds to die so we can find them and necropsy them). What we have documented is substantial movements by much of the flock. Some birds have dispersed beyond where we could find them (beyond the central FL peninsula), only to return later. Several are still missing. Dispersal is a suspected reason why birds have “disappeared” in the past. So even if we don’t document mortality with our intensive monitoring, we are documenting this extreme rate of movements/dispersal. We suspect the birds are moving in response to drought, perhaps looking for wetter/greener pastures.”

Since the beginning of the year one pair has been bouncing between 4 points in north and central Florida (see attached figure). The minimum distance traveled by the whoopers this past quarter was 470 miles. This much traveling of course increases the odds of travel-related mortality such as collisions with power lines, etc.

Marty stated, “We continue to monitor 4 migratory whoopers in Polk County and the 1 on Paynes Prairie near Gainesville. We will keep you posted.”

Florida's Non-Migratory Whooper Flock Being Monitored More Intensively

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Marty Folks reports that "Conditions have been very dry in Florida for several years. Above is an image we recently took of a small lake in Lake County. The area outlined in green is the normal shoreline.

Last year the decision was made by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to discontinue the release of whooping cranes into Florida’s non-migratory flock. The FWC accepted the recommendation from the multi-agency International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

The team created the release program 15 years ago in an effort to establish a self-sustaining, non-migratory whooping crane population in Florida. Naturally occurring whooping crane populations in the southeastern United States disappeared by the 1930s.

Scientists decided to stop releasing cranes into the non-migratory flock for a variety of reasons, including problems with survival and reproduction, both of which have been complicated by drought. Additional considerations included shorter-than-expected life spans, scarcity of birds for release, project costs and the loss of habitat from development. The team felt that project resources and birds produced in captivity could be better used for other whooping crane releases as well as to maintain the captive flock.

Marty Folk, whooping crane project leader with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission continues to monitor the population and has provided an update report concerning the 2009 Breeding Season.

Marty reports that, “Conditions have been very dry in Florida for several years. Attached is an image we recently took of a small lake in Lake County. The area outlined in green is the normal shoreline. All marshes in this area are completely dry. The drought continues but despite that, we now have an active nest. This pair’s marsh holds water only because of a hydrological connection to a large lake. As you know, the goal of this project now has shifted to an emphasis on increasing our knowledge of the problems, especially regarding reproduction and survival. Toward that end, we are monitoring the nest intensively by employing video surveillance. There’s a chance we might see several other nest attempts this year, but we don’t expect more than 3 nests from the population’s 11 pairs. The current population consists of 11 males and 18 females.”

Marty continues, “Drought is an obvious problem for breeding, but even in wet years some pairs failed to hatch eggs, so we are looking at incubation behavior to see if some pairs don’t incubate ‘properly’. We are computerizing a back-log of surveillance video that will allow us to look for problems with behavior by comparing successful vs. unsuccessful pairs. Thus far we have computerized >800 hours (that’s not a typo-800 hours) of incubation behavior and still have a lot to go.”

Marty advises that in addition to long-term drought, other major problems include survival of individual whoopers. Marty explains that, “Male Florida whooping cranes are not living as long as they should; the general rule is that they die by age 10. Females are doing better and 9 birds are >9 years of age (the 2 oldest are turning 16 this spring).However, for both males and females, we don’t have good data on what happens to them when they “disappear”. Some birds, at time of disappearance, did not have functioning transmitters and so could not be tracked. Even for birds with functioning transmitters, if a carcass is not retrieved within 24 hours of death, scavenging and decomposition make it very difficult to determine cause of death. Others likely dispersed beyond a reasonable tracking distance and were never seen again.”

Florida wildlife officials are attempting to get a better understanding of the problems by intensive monitoring. Marty describes, “When we plot dates of mortality/disappearance by age, we see that most older cranes die/go missing from March-June. With that knowledge, we’ve begun an intensive monitoring schedule that involves checking high-priority (older) birds on a daily basis. We’ve not monitored this intensively since the early days of the project; our normal schedule has been 2-3 checks/week. Our hope is to recover downed birds asap so that necropsies can provide the best possible data.”

Marty concludes that, “We do know that perhaps one reason males don’t survive as well as females is that they are more prone to power line collisions, and may be more prone in general to other traumatic events and also predation. We speculate that it is associated with the males’ role in defending a territory, and also the males’ general tendency to lead the group. So now we are collecting behavioral data on who leads flocks of whooping cranes, both in flight and on the ground, to look for trends.”

The Florida whooping crane team has been flying roughly one day/week to track migratory whooping cranes this winter. From the ground they have also been able to monitor 4 migratory birds in Polk County (the ultra-light led whoopers).