As the first frosts settle in, Wood Buffalo National Park’s beloved whooping cranes are on their way to their winter home in south Texas, and scientists are tracking exactly what route they take to get there and what they do along the way.
Using data collected by satellite from 24 birds banded with electronic tracking devices, biologists at Wood Buffalo are able to determine that 10 of the banded whoopers are still in and around the national park, while the rest are on their way south and have stopped for a break in Saskatchewan.
Of the 12 chicks newly banded in the park this August, only four have begun migration and are within 100 km of Saskatoon. The others chicks are waiting behind at the park with two of the nine “second-year birds” banded in 2010.
“This timing is expected,” said park ecosystems biologist, Rhona Kindopp, on the migration schedule.
She said strong winds helped the first cranes actually move along further and faster during the month of September.
“The strong northwest winds around here must have prompted some whoopers to ‘make a mile,’” she said, noting that one adult banded in 2009 at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas, nicknamed RAY, three sub-adults from 2010 and one 2011 family group began their journey on September 10 and were located 70 km northeast of Saskatoon just three days later.
The data also showed that one sub-adult that had spent most of the summer in North Dakota returned to Saskatchewan, south of Weyburn.
Each marked crane has two bands, one on each leg. One holds the transmitter, which records the bird’s location. The other is an identification tag, tracked based on colours that change each year.
The transmitters have been refined to give a signal pointing to an area of five or six metres around the animal.
The birds’ locations are recorded several times a day, but the data is only sent to the satellite every three days. Scientists will continue monitoring the migration until the birds arrive at their winter nesting grounds on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico.