As if being raised by humans in bird suits and taught to migrate by an ultralight aircraft wasn’t challenging enough, a reintroduced flock of endangered whooping cranes now faces a new challenge: Mastering nesting and rearing chicks. But crane biologists and general aviation pilots are banding together to use flights in small airplanes to see if they can assist the cranes and grow this population.
Biologists have long suspected black flies were driving cranes off their nests, disrupting efforts to hatch the next generation of this fledgling population. The birds must sit on their nests and incubate their eggs for 30 days during the height of central Wisconsin’s black fly season.
Scientists from the International Crane Foundation set up traps and fake nests throughout the nesting area in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to monitor the abundance of black flies and other biting insects. They also selectively applied Bti, a biological control agent and the most common, environmentally safe way to reduce adult black fly numbers to dampen the swarms’ impact on the nesting cranes. Aerial surveillance of the cranes’ nests is critical to assess whether these black fly control measures are helping and also to facilitate the rescue of eggs, if nests are abandoned.
Volunteer pilots from Connecticut, Maine, Michigan and Minnesota flew their own airplanes to Wisconsin to conduct twice daily aerial surveys of the nest sites. Jamie Gamble (North Granby, Conn.), Pat Healy (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.), James Knowles (Tenants Harbor, Maine) and Richard Sedgwick (Minnetonka, Minn.) donated these flights through LightHawk, a volunteer-based environmental aviation organization that supports conservation projects in the US, Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada.
This year has seen the highest number of potentially nesting pairs, so the donated flights made possible by LightHawk have been vital to tracking the challenges and success of the cranes’ breeding, according to researchers.
The International Crane Foundation (ICF) and Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) staff are using the aerial perspectives to monitor the nesting whooping cranes in and around the Necedah refuge. By flying over the nesting area every day, weather permitting, and many times twice a day, ICF can identify new nests, and tell if the cranes are sitting tight on their eggs or have left the nests unattended. Biologists can then follow up on the ground to retrieve abandoned eggs and hatch them artificially. Enter the scientists in bird suits, who will raise the chicks for release further east in Wisconsin, where black flies are less abundant.
“I have been impressed with the enthusiasm and willingness of the LightHawk pilots to do some rather difficult, strenuous, flying. It is definitely not your run-of-the-mill surveys,” said Anne Lacy, ICF Crane Research Coordinator. “Their contribution to whooping crane conservation is almost beyond measure, as the information they allow us to gather is just not possible from the ground.”
On May 1, pilot Jamie Gamble and International Crane Foundation’s WCEP Tracking Field Manager Eva Szyszkoski took off on their daily nest surveys eager to check on whooping crane pair #12-02 and #19-04. The pair, thought to be infertile, had been sitting on a nest for some time. Undeterred by the black flies, the pair remained on their egg and hatched the first wild-hatched chick of 2012.
“It’s inspiring to see the results of all the hard work of the WCEP team. To see these magnificent birds in their natural habitat successfully breeding, is something I never dreamed of experiencing,” Gamble said. “Knowing their future depends on increasing numbers in the wild, seeing a day-old chick balanced on the edge of a nest brings immense hope and inspiration.”
The plan to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes to eastern North America began in 1999 when a group of agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals came together and formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). Currently, there are 106 whooping cranes in this Eastern migratory population as a result of WCEP’s efforts. All eyes are on these reintroduced cranes as they master migration, but struggle with nesting and raising chicks.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 600 birds in existence, approximately 445 of them in the wild. Aside from the 106 WCEP birds, the only other migratory population of whooping cranes nests at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada, and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migratory flock of approximately 20 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region, and an additional 17 non-migratory cranes have been introduced into southern Louisiana.
LightHawk provides donated flights in private aircraft to elevate conservation efforts. LightHawk flies more about 1,000 missions each year for over 250 conservation partners in North America and Central America. LightHawk is a purely collaborative effort, as our staff works with over 200 volunteer pilots to design aerial campaigns that help conservation groups, universities, government agencies and individuals protect land, water and wildlife. For more information: Lighthawk.org
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