Whoopers up, down ... itís hard to say exactly
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
December 5, 2012
The newsletter of the Whooping Crane Conservation Alliance is called “Grus Americana,” the scientific name for this great white bird. The newsletter provides general information about the fate of these endangered birds. The latest edition is dated October 2012.
During summer 2012 the cranes in the Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, enjoyed a “good” nesting season. There were at least 69 nesting attempts. Prior to fall migration there were 34 young on the breeding grounds.
This is good news for these embattled birds and welcome: Last winter their winter quarters, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, suffered severe drought and poor food availability for the cranes. Conditions bad enough to force some of the flock to search elsewhere in the coastal region of Texas and Louisiana for blue crabs and wolfberries.
The whooping birds in this Canada-to-Texas flock are no doubt in Texas now. Blue crabs have rebounded and general conditions have improved on the refuge. Wouldn’t it be informative to know how many whoopers exist in this flock? Of course. But a kind of mystery has been created. And I certainly don’t comprehend it.
Since 1982 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has done actual counts of the wintering birds and reported them to the public. But, this year, a statistical method will estimate peak flock size from counts of some cranes. One criticism of statistical estimation is that the public won’t know how the totals were derived and, moreover, the information won’t become public.
Whooping cranes are making a slow recovery from a low number of 16 birds (!) in the 1940s. Every year the number of surviving adults and first-year chicks has been scrutinized for signs of recovery. And hope.
Uncertainty about how many birds are in the whooper flock is both unfortunate and also unhelpful. There must be a back story about this but I don’t know it. Many observers are hoping there may be 300-plus whoopers in this wild flock. (There are way more crane admirers than cranes.)
Considerable effort has been made, and continues to be invested, to preserve this species from extinction. Whooping cranes are hand-raised, artificially inseminated, incubated, in various surroundings. There’s a non-migratory flock of dozens of whoopers in Florida. And a small but growing man-created flock that migrates from Wisconsin to Florida, having been taught their route by people in disguise piloting ultralight aircraft. Hand-raised whooper “colts” are taught to follow familiar flying machines from breeding pens in the north to a suitable habitat in the southeast. The birds take it from there.
Or not. It’s so so easy to extirpate some species and so incredibly hard to save and conserve them.
Beginning in 1975, a pilot project was established at the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, some 70 land miles from Jackson Hole. It was quite an ambitious project, filled with firsts and unknowns: Take a whooping crane egg from one of two eggs in a nest in Canada; get it to Idaho safely; incubate the egg until time to substitute it for one of two eggs in a sandhill crane’s nest in Grays Lake NWR; hope it will hatch and be accepted by the sandhill pair; hope the fledgling whooper will migrate with sandhill “parents” to New Mexico for winter; return to Grays Lake vicinity in spring; and when of breeding age (4 or 5 years) mate with another whooping crane; reproduce.
For starters. Most of these goals were met. Outstanding. It turned out that for various reasons, no whooping crane pairs ever formed in the small population created.
That project was a rewarding opportunity for Meg and me to meet and get to be friends with Rod Drewien, crane authority, and his wife, Ruth Shea. Ruth is also a biologist, a trumpeter swan expert. Each of them in what I call active retirement, continuing to make significant contributions in their respective fields.
In 2012 North America suffered two major weather events whose effects will be long felt: Hurricane Sandy and the intense drought. Sandy was immense and caused much damage and loss of life. The drought affected enormous areas of arable land mass and disrupted traditional ways of life.
If you had to choose one event as the worst, which would you decide on?
I pick the drought.
Field notes: Winter in Jackson Hole is always a vertical proposition. A couple of thousand feet in elevation makes a lot of difference in conditions on — and above — the ground. For the past weeks, as November left and December has snuck in, it’s been snow above town and bare ground in town. (Forget ice, if you can.) I’ve heard some folks would like such a winter arrangement. Not likely to happen.
Wildlife seems to be perplexed, not moving about unless disturbed. Long-range weather forecasts call for precipitation in the first week of December. Look for wildlife to have to react.
It continues to be a year for common redpolls, many observe. Trumpeter swans are in some number; tundras may have gone. Rough-legged hawks, redtail hawks and harriers remain in the Hole.
The annual Christmas Bird Count will be held in Jackson Hole on Dec. 16. Could be interesting. Plan to participate.
The Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club will meet at 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Jackson Town Hall. Please note the new time. Nature observations, socializing, refreshments and a refresher on winter birds in Jackson Hole in preparation for the annual Jackson Hole Christmas Bird Count. Coming right up. Make plans now. Open to all and free. New birders welcome.
Teton Valley, Idaho, will conduct its bird count on Jan. 5. Contact Susan Patla, 307-733-2321.
© Bert Raynes 2012
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.