Transmitters allow Crane Trust scientists to follow whooping cranes during migration

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By LORI POTTER Hub Staff Writer , Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 2:00 pm

Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership

Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership
Whooping crane
A juvenile whooping crane wears a transmitter with a global positioning system that identifies its location four times daily for researchers at the Crane Trust near Alda and along the Central Flyway from Texas to Canada. There now are transmitters on 35-40 of the 279 migrating whooping cranes. Rick Rasmussen, Platte River Photography Crane Trust officials are asking the public to assist with Whooper Watch during the spring migration season. Adult whooping cranes are white with black wingtips. Visit the website at for details.

ALDA — Whooping cranes wearing solar-powered transmitters tell researchers at the Crane Trust near Alda and throughout the Great Plains states and Canadian provinces where the birds stop during spring and fall migrations.

But it’s still up to scientists on the ground to fill in the details.

“Where we’re taking a leading role is evaluating the stopover locations on the Central Flyway,” said Crane Trust Director of Science Mary Harner.

“It’s a big thing in science now,” Crane Trust Wildlife Biologist Greg Wright said about tracking wildlife with global positioning systems, “but it only goes so far … So you have to be there.”

Wright and other biologists go to the GPS-identified stopovers to make detailed surveys of the land cover and other habitat features, and to talk to landowners. “Teams are scattered (throughout the flyway), so someone always is relatively close and you can get there in good time,” he said.

The Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership began in 2008 as a research project conceived byCrane Trust staff, with support from U.S. GeologicalSurvey, to use a transmitting system to identify migration pathways.

Data gathering started in 2009 when the first whooping cranes were captured at wintering areas at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas and breeding sites at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. The captures were authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Each captured bird is given a health check. Platform transmitting terminals with GPS systems and antennas are attached to their legs.

Harner said Neoprene is used on the inside of the devices as a cushion between them and cranes’ legs.

There are solar panels on the three exposed surfaces of the two-piece leg bands to maximize recharge of batteries that are expected to have a lifespan of three to five years.

Mary Harner

Wright said there now are 35 to 40 whooping cranes with transmitters. “This technology was thoroughly researched on sandhill cranes before it was used on whooping cranes,” he added.

Harner said the project has collected a little over half of the location data that is expected over the duration of the research. The Crane Trust website says researchers expect to follow the birds in the field through 2015.

A February 2013 USGS report for the five core project partners — the others are the Crane Trust, Canadian Wildlife Service, Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and USFWS — summarizes the project’s history and data from 2012.

Location data was gathered for 36 whooping cranes during the 2012 summer breeding season in

Greg Wright

Canada. During last fall’s migration, 261 stopover locations were documented, including one east of Lexington, one east of Kearney and one east of Wood River.

The report says 11 adults and one juvenile whooping crane were captured at Aransas this winter and the plan is to capture 10 more adults during winter 2013-2014. It also says that during the project’s lifetime, the goal is to have transmitters on about 30 juvenile (hatch-year) birds and 30 adults.

The project goals listed by the five core partners in a 2011 research partnership document are to advance knowledge of whooping crane breeding, wintering and migratory ecology; disseminate research findings for conservation, management and whooping crane recovery; and minimize negative effects of research activity on the cranes.

Other organizations supporting the project are the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, International Crane Foundation and Parks Canada.

“Partners agree that this opportunity to mark wild whooping cranes with GPS technology represents the best prospect in the past 30 years to enhance understanding of whooping cranes and assess risks they face during their entire life cycle,” the USGS report says.

Wright said the cooperation of landowners where whooping cranes have been spotted has been a wonderful asset to the research.

“We’re certainly learning things,” he said, but the data collected so far is a small sampling of what researchers will have in the next year or two. “There’s really not a precedent for this.”

Harner said transmitters are activated immediately after they are placed on the cranes and are programmed to record four GPS locations daily, once every six hours.

There is a time lapse because transmitters upload new data approximately every 2½ days. Researchers are dispatched to survey the places where it’s known that whooping cranes have been.

Wright said that once the signals are downloaded, a decoding program must be used “so it means something to us.”

“Project partners monitor the whooping crane location data closely as the project continues,” Harner said, “and we will be working together over the next several years to continue collecting, processing and analyzing the data, and sharing research findings.

“Far-reaching partnerships make this landmark study successful, and we look forward to ongoing collaborations to advance our understanding of this magnificent species.”

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                                WHOOPING CRANE FACTS, Whooping Crane (Grus americana)

Features: Tallest bird in North America, at 5 feet. Mostly white with black wingtips and face, and red head.

Numbers: Approximately 280 in a migratory flock that breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. In captivity or part of re-introduction efforts, 290.

History: There are accounts of whooping cranes seen during spring and fall migrations since European settlers arrived in Nebraska in the 1840s.

Lowest numbers: Due to hunting and habitat loss, only 15 birds remained in 1941.

Recovery challenges: Loss of habitat, altered wetlands, climate change and collisions with power lines.

Breeding: Whooping cranes normally lay two eggs, with one egg-chick surviving. Adult pairs have been seen with twins, including five sets arriving at Aransas in 2010.

Behaviors: Territorial at breeding and wintering grounds, and use the same areas year after year.

Migration route: About 2,500 miles long and 300 miles wide through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Critical habitat: Four sites designated in the 2005 International Recovery Plan for the Whooping Crane are Salt Plains NWR in Oklahoma, Cheyenne Bottoms State Waterfowl Management Area and Quivira NWR in Kansas, and the Platte River between Lexington and Denman. ________________________________________

                                               Whooper watchers still sought

ALDA — Crane Trust officials are seeking public help to spot endangered whooping cranes during their spring migration through Nebraska in March and April.

If you see a whopping crane, call Whooper Watch at 888-399-2824 to report the time, exact location, crane numbers and activities.

A scientist will be sent to confirm the sighting and document location features.

Do not disturb the birds. Stay in a vehicle or established viewing area at least 2,000 feet (0.4 of a mile) away. Don’t tell others of the sighting or location to avoid attracting more attention.

There are only about 280 whooping cranes in the wild flock that winters in south Texas and goes to summer breeding grounds in Canada’s Prairie Provinces. During their 2,500-mile spring and fall migrations, they may stop for one to several days along the Platte or other Nebraska rivers and wetlands to rest and feed.

Visit the website at to download a flyer that includes bird identification information and Whooper Watch rules and procedures.