Stalking the Wild Whooper in Nebraska

At last count, 184 of the estimated 419 whooping cranes left on the planet migrate through the Central Flyway

  • Tom White
  • Oct 01, 2003
WITH HER BINOCULARS trained on snow-covered bottomland, Sharlene Riese peered into the cold, gray November morning while her husband, Gerald, drove slowly along backroads near the Platte River in Nebraska.

At the end of their 30-mile jaunt last fall, Sharlene thought she saw something deep in a cornfield abutting the river. She asked Gerald to back up for a better view and looked again. "I thought I saw something move," she says, "but because of the snow and distance, I wasn’t sure."

The Rieses mounted their spotting scope on their van’s window and then couldn’t believe their eyes. After three weeks of driving and looking without success, they had finally spotted one…two…four…seven…eight whooping cranes—nearly five percent of the Central Flyway’s population—feeding about a half-mile away. "We had never seen eight together," says Sharlene. "Right away we called Diane Beachly, the Whooper Watch volunteer coordinator, to verify the birds were whooping cranes."

"It was a stroke of luck," says Gerald, a retired firefighter who has lived within five miles of the Platte his entire life. "I don’t know how she saw them. I wouldn’t have, white on white." An aerial survey team that had flown the river earlier that morning had missed the five-foot-tall birds against the snow, too.

The Rieses, who live in Grand Island, are among 60 citizen scientists volunteering with Whooper Watch, a program started in 2001 by NWF and its affiliate, the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, to monitor the central Platte River for the tallest and one of the rarest bird species in North America. The information gathered about their location and behavior will help researchers develop a recovery plan for crane habitat along the Platte.

At last count, 184 of the estimated 419 whooping cranes left on the planet migrate through the Central Flyway, from wintering grounds on the Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast to their breeding area in Wood Buffalo Park in Canada.

For thousands of years, whoopers have used the sandy, braided channels of Nebraska’s central Platte River as a stopover point during their spring and fall migrations, feeding in wetlands and meadows during the day and roosting on sandbars at night. Statuesque whoopers dressed in white plumage stand out in spring’s grand avian procession—10 million waterfowl and a half-million sandhill cranes pass through the central Platte area, a pinch in the hourglass-shaped Central Flyway.

But weighed against agricultural and urban water needs, maintaining adequate river flows to make the Platte hospitable to wildlife is a contentious issue. During the past century, 70 percent of the Platte’s flow has been diverted for other uses, causing significant changes to roosting sites and wetlands. Conservation organizations have documented that some 200 bird species, ranging from waterfowl to neotropical migrant populations, use habitat along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte—roughly from Grand Island to Lexington—throughout the year.

To balance the needs of water users and endangered or threatened species, the Platte River Endangered Species Partnership, a joint venture between Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and the Interior Department, has developed a recovery program with the goal of improving and conserving habitat and water flows in the central Platte River. A draft Environmental Impact Statement on the program is expected in October, with a public comment period to follow.

Whooper Watch volunteers, add to the aerial observations undertaken by the Platte partnership. "We really needed a monitoring force on the ground to be effective," says Carolyn Greene, NWF’s Platte River project manager.

Trained volunteers, like the Rieses, drive one of 26 designated routes covering 10 to 30 miles in the early morning three or four times a week, noting all the wildlife they spot on survey sheets while they scan for whoopers. Spring spotting starts in late March and continues through early May. In the fall, volunteer Whooper Watchers travel their routes from early October to mid-November. Other volunteers participate in habitat improvement projects that include spring and fall prairie burns, prairie seed collection, brush removal and stream cleanup. Paid only with a recognition picnic or luncheon and the reward of knowing they are making a difference for wildlife, Whooper Watch participants last year volunteered 694 hours and drove 7,930 miles to spot 15 cranes.

The Rieses, the program’s most successful watchers to date, donated 149 hours and 1,225 miles last year and saw 12 whoopers. They are back on their route again this year. "We do it because we just like to," says Sharlene, a retired nurse’s aide. "Maybe something we see will help keep the birds into the future. They’ve been coming through here for such a long time, it’d be a shame to lose them."

Though the data that the watchers and scientists are gathering might take some time to evaluate, Beachly says the program has an immediate educational value. "Since Whooper Watch started, there has been an increase in local interest and enthusiasm for whooping cranes. The volunteers—retirees, farmers, and other interested people—are helping to build an appreciation for this magnificent bird."

And like Gerald and Sharlene Riese, these citizen scientists can’t resist the call to gaze through early morning mists along the Platte in search of North America’s most elusive cranes.

Whooper Watch is funded in part by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and sponsored by NWF and Nebraska Wildlife Federation. Partners include the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, the Platte River Endangered Species Partnership, Audubon Nebraska, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. For more information see our whooping cranepage.

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The Wary Whooping Crane

Millennia ago, when woolly mammoths and rhinos roamed North America, the whooping crane ranged widely over the continent, haunting wetlands from what is now central Canada south to Mexico, and from the Atlantic coast to Utah. When weather patterns shifted after the last Ice Age, the shallow marshes in which whoopers nested began to dry up. Crane habitat was going the way of the glaciers.

By the 1800s, probably no more than 1,400 whooping cranes—a uniquely North American species—survived, nesting in the wetlands of the central and northern Midwest and on into Canada. In those days, hunting regulations were weak and rarely enforced. Bison, pronghorn, waterfowl, songbirds, deer, passenger pigeons—practically anything with a backbone and warm blood—were being hunted for market. Whoopers were no exception.

Early bird lovers like John James Audubon, famed even today for his life-size paintings of North American birds, described the whooping crane as noble and majestic. And nevertheless shot them. Audubon left detailed accounts of his crane hunts, although his tendency to confound whooping and sandhill cranes—he thought the latter were immature whoopers—can make sorting through his stories a bit sticky. His writings nevertheless show a bygone world, with all its wildlife splendor and sordid waste of life.

Audubon’s journal provides a detailed account of cranes, gunfire, and what Audubon seemed to perceive as a near-death experience with a whooping crane. Commenting that the “wariness of this species is so remarkable, that it takes all the cunning and care of an Indian hunter to approach it at times,” he still proved quite successful at knocking down the bird that, at 5 feet, is the tallest on the continent.

In November 1810 he drew a bead on several whoopers feeding on water lily roots in a marsh near Henderson, Ohio, and blasted away. “Only two flew up, to my surprise,” he wrote. “They came down on the pond towards me, and my next shot brought them to the ground. On walking to the hole, I found that I had disabled seven in all.” Since whoopers usually raise only one chick yearly to adulthood, this little encounter used up a whole year’s breeding for 14 whooping cranes.

Little satiated, Audubon was still shooting whoopers in April 1822, when he wounded two of them while they were feeding on baby alligators, behavior he documented in his whooper painting.

Those who root for whooping cranes will probably agree that Audubon’s most-pleasing crane hunt took place in winter 1821–22. While boating the Mississippi River with other men somewhere near Natchez, Tennessee, he spotted several cranes standing on a large sandbar. “The sight of these beautiful birds excited in me a desire to procure some of them,” he wrote. “Accordingly, taking a rifle and some ammunition, I left the flat-bottomed boat in a canoe, and told the men to watch me, as the current was rapid . . . .” And a good thing he did tell them, because in a few moments he would need them to rescue him, although not from any river.

He stalked the birds carefully and prepared to shoot. “I took, as I thought, an excellent aim, although my anxiety to show the boatmen how good a marksman I was rendered it less sure than it might otherwise have been.” Two of the birds flew off, but one was wounded and fell, a wing broken. Audubon, seeing his quarry grounded, immediately ran after it with, as he put it, “the speed of an ostrich.”

Leaving his rifle behind, he chased the bird along shore, the bird outracing him until it became snarled in driftwood, at which point Audubon closed down upon it, expecting, no doubt, to wring its long, white neck.

But the bird had other ideas. It turned on the hunter, rose to its full height, ruffled its feathers, and charged with an open bill. Audubon relates modestly that at this point “I felt unwilling to encounter my antagonist, and keeping my eye on him, moved backwards. The farther I removed, the more he advanced, until at length I fairly turned my back to him, and took to my heels, retreating with fully more speed than I had pursued.”

The bird was no more willing to give up the chase, now that the tables were turned, than Audubon had been earlier. The painter sought refuge in the river, plunging in up to his neck and calling out for the boatmen to come as fast as they could.

The whooper would have proved wise as an owl had it quit at this point, but it pressed its attack, standing up to its belly in the river and thrusting at Audubon with rapier bill. The crane was still fencing with Audubon when the boatmen arrived—“highly delighted they were with my situation,” Audubon would recall—and whacked the bird with an oar.

The nineteenth century proved merciless for whooping cranes. Gunmen killed an estimated 250 of them and, worse yet, settlers moved into crane nesting grounds, draining marshes and plowing prairies and meadows. Bereft of nesting sites, the whooping crane dwindled. By 1890, it had disappeared from the heart of its northern Midwest breeding range.

Help soon came in the form of the 1916 federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which put an end to hunting of whoopers. But habitat loss continued to crush the life out of the species. By 1938, only two small flocks remained, a nonmigratory group in Louisiana and a flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas. The Louisiana birds in the 1940s shrank to a population of one lone male that was captured by a federal biologist and National Audubon Society staff in 1950 and released in Texas, where the resident whoopers promptly killed him. At the time, it may have seemed they would soon join him in the afterlife. The Texas flock had reached a low of 15 birds in winter 1941–42 and showed little evidence of rejuvenation. But help, in the form of increasing research and federal management, was on the way.

Today, with their winter and nesting grounds protected and the birds carefully monitored and managed, whooping cranes number about 450 in both captivity and the wild. The Texas migratory flock now numbers an officially tabulated 184 birds, but a good nesting season this summer is likely to boost the number to 195 or so, according to Tom Stehn, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane recovery team. The Fish and Wildlife Service also has established a nonmigratory flock of about 90 birds in Florida as well as a second migratory flock of about 20 whoopers (soon to be boosted to 36 with release of captive-bred birds) that move between Wisconsin and Florida, perhaps passing over the very site where Audubon so long ago shot whooping cranes along the Ohio River.—Roger Di Silvestro

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