Rare Whooping Cranes Use Area Wetland as Migration Layover

Image courtesy of The Wetlands Initiative
Five whooping cranes, from an endangered North American population of about 600, made a migration stop this week at the Hennepin and Hopper Lakes in the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge.

It created a buzz Wednesday in the Chicago office of The Wetlands Initiative, the owner and manager of this Illinois River wetland.

Gary Sullivan, senior ecologist with The Wetlands Initiative, said there are few modern records of whooping cranes stopping in Illinois.

“They have not been observed many places in the state,” Sullivan said. Admitting he might be biased, the refuge and its habitat must have some attraction to these birds, he said.

To protect the five birds, The Wetlands Initiative decided Wednesday afternoon to close the interior of the refuge to the public. The access road and parking lot near the observation tower remains open and the entire refuge will be reopened once the birds leave, Sullivan said.

For the past two weeks, Nebraska officials closed off a wildlife area to the public to protect three whooping cranes that stopped there. The area was reopened this week after the cranes resumed their northward migration, according to news reports.

One whooping crane, a female, stopped at the Dixon refuge several years ago, Sullivan said. It was tracked by biologists as it migrated to Canada but it died after hitting a power line, he said.

The tall, white birds’ historic breeding range once included the prairie wetlands of the Midwest, Sullivan said. After human settlement of the continent, whooping cranes declined from shooting and from destruction of habitat by agriculture, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1941, the wild flock was down to 15. In 1970 it was listed as endangered and conservation efforts brought the number of wild whooping cranes back to 383 in 2010. The only self-sustaining wild population nests in Canada and winters on coastal Texas. The eastern population, which once nested in the Midwest and wintered in Louisiana, went extinct.

For the last 15 years, Operation Migration tried reestablishing the eastern population with hand-reared whooping cranes, each fall coaxing them from Wisconsin to Florida with an ultralight airplane. Wildly popular with the public, this program was shut down this winter by federal wildlife officials who said it was not producing self-sustaining breeding birds and that less human interaction is needed. Since 2001, the program released nearly 250 whooping cranes. From this, only four wild-fledged cranes survive today, the service said.

The closely-related sandhill crane, which is brownish-gray, is more common and abundant than whooping cranes and nests throughout the Midwest.

Source: News Tribune