I cover all nongame bird species so I will, at times, use this blog to prattle on about some of the other cool and groovy nongame bird species (please let me know if this offends your sensibilities). While our Peregrine Falcons are busy incubating eggs, many other bird species are in the throes of spring migration. The Whooping Crane is one species whose spring migration through Nebraska traditionally peaks about the second week of April. Whooping Cranes are critically-endangered and the current wild population (the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock) numbers less than 300. While it may be too early to declare “the times they are a changing”, 2012’s migration has departed from tradition and perhaps is the beginning of a trend. One family group of Whooping Cranes showed up in Nebraska in late January. While occasionally a lone immature that has gotten mixed-up with Sandhill Cranes the previous fall shows up in February with it grey and abundant cousin, a Whooping Crane family group showing up in our state in January is unprecedented (and, still, almost unbelievable). This particular family group is believed to be the same one that spent the first part of the winter in central Kansas, which is also unheard of. If that were not enough, several other groups, not just a lone bird or two, of Whooping Cranes were documented in Nebraska well ahead of schedule in early March. A couple of relatively large groups, such as the eleven found in south-central Nebraska on 29 March and pictured below, showed up in late March which is also earlier than expected. John Laux, an NGPC Biologist, captured this photos from his vehicle from a highway and generously allowed me to post them.
You may be thinking that these early Whoopers were just responding to and taking advantage of the mild winter and warm March. Perhaps not so much, likely more important is the ongoing drought in south Texas where the birds spend the winter. The short and simple bottom line is that drought in south Texas is bad for Whooping Cranes because it negatively affects key food resources, such as Blue Crab, that the cranes rely on. If Whooping Cranes are unable to find what they need, they are more likely to shove off and go elsewhere. Alternatively, birds may not go elsewhere. A few years ago a couple dozen Whoopers perished during the winter as a result of poor conditions and a lack of food resources.
With all of that said, I would put out the request that if anyone happens to be so lucky to come across one or more Whooping Cranes please report the sighting. You can report it to me or to any Nebraska Game and Parks Commission office. An important caveat that I cannot stress enough, however, is to never approach or disturb Whooping Cranes. Do not do what the individual in the photo is doing. Not only is harassing Whooping Cranes a violation of federal and state law, but the concern is spooking and flushing the birds may cause the birds to fly into powerlines or other structures. Whooping Crane collisions with powerlines is a significant source of mortalities for these birds. The loss of a single breeding adult is a major loss because Whoopers have a slow rate of reproduction. It has taken seventy plus years for the species to go from fifteen indivuals to just under 300. The skinny is this species needs all the individuals it can muster in a changing and brave new world.