Crane chicks in record number of whooper nests

Crane chicks in record number of whooper nests
The Lobstick Pair: Hoss (the oldest crane alive at 25 years) and Lady with their chick, outside of Wood Buffalo National Park. Dry conditions have been threatening the safety of nesting pairs of whooping cranes.Photo courtesy of Klaus Nigge.

There’s a new chick in town, but mommy and daddy won’t be letting her out of their sight.

The famous “Lobstick” pair of whooping cranes, “Lady” and “Hoss,” have successfully managed to raise one fledgling again this summer during their nineteenth year nesting just outside the eastern boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park.

Ronnie Schaefer, who maintains a trapline where the famous pair have come to live each summer for nearly two decades, said drought conditions early this summer pushed the cranes to smaller, more isolated wetlands.

Another twosome nests near the Lobstick pair, also outside the park, and Schaefer affectionately calls them Snowball and Snowflake. Each pair now has one surviving chick.

Dry conditions in the area have meant more birds and predators are encroaching on the cranes’ territory. Other birds, such as ducks and geese, have had their eggs stolen and strewn about, but Schaefer reports that the cranes have been unharmed.

“They’re really protecting their young right now,” he said.

The Canadian Wildlife Survey (CWS) and Parks Canada detected a record number of 75 nests in Wood Buffalo National Park during their annual survey of whooping crane nests in mid-May, including several in areas newly colonized by nesting pairs.

Now researchers are preparing to check how many of those nests have successfully yielded fledgling cranes. Each nest typically contains two eggs.

This is the second year of a three-year telemetry study developed by CWS that uses GPS to assess productivity in the only successful migratory population of whooping cranes, which travels from the Aransas Wildlife Reserve in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park every year for breeding.

“This year we’ll try to band between 10 and 12 birds at the beginning of August,” said Rhona Kindopp, an ecosystem scientist with Wood Buffalo. “The idea was to band 10 young of the year each year and 10 adults so you get an idea of what the population is doing. We’ve been more successful in banding chicks because they can’t fly, so we have fewer adults.”

Last year, nine fledged chicks and three adults were banded with telemetry tracking systems in an attempt to understand the ecology of the birds and the threats faced by the vulnerable flock.
Of the 74 nests counted last year, only 46 chicks fledged.

“Not all of the pairs successfully raised one chick; not all of the pairs successfully raised two chicks,” said Kindopp. “But of the 46 chicks that fledged last year, there were five sets of twins.”

Whether this year will be more successful than last remains to be seen. Differences in weather and predation can impact the numbers in the breeding grounds, as can natural cycles in population.

In three to five weeks, the fledged chicks will fly off to Texas, braving wind farms, power lines and rogue hunters to get included in the yearly population count.

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