Monday, April 22, 2013

Whooping Cranes--Happy Earth Day!

Yesterday I had my final volunteer shift of the season at the information trailer at La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. It was a beautiful, cool, overcast day, and the water in the canals was higher than it's been for a while, due to some rainy days in the past week. The Prairie was alive after all that wonderful moisture. Wildflowers that hadn't been visible the week before bushed out all along the trail. Blue Spiderwort and White Sweetclover were predominant, but there were also a few White Prickly Poppies and Nuttall's Thistles stretched tall with spiky flower buds, ready to pop open any day. Further down the trail, purple clumps of Pickerel Weed dotted the wet prairie. A Great White Heron (unusual visitor, normally confined to the Keys) picked this week to stop by for an appearance, and I saw my first flock of Bobolinks of the season. The biggest bird activity was down at the viewing platform, where white birds ruled the day.
White Birds Everywhere

Wood Storks and Ibises
There were probably a couple hundred White Ibises, about 50 Snowy Egrets in breeding plumage scrabbling over territory, 15 big white Wood Storks, White Pelicans, and three Whooping Cranes. I was thrilled as I looked over the Prairie Basin at this glorious scene. The other visitors and I said a collective "oh wow!" as a single crane walked closer to the platform and foraged. The Whooping Crane was unmistakable--about 5 feet tall and brilliant white, with a red blaze on its forehead and bill. And you could not miss the large, bright colored bands and a radio tracking unit on its legs. I stayed and reveled, photographing for about 45 minutes before finally dragging myself away to give my fellow volunteer, Helene, a chance to come see the wonder.

Whooper Comes Closer

Bands and Tracking Radio
Back at the info trailer, we told every visitor who passed that the "Whoopers are out at the platform!". People who knew what that meant were excited and hurried down. Those who were unfamiliar got a quick lesson from us in how extraordinary these birds were, and then they hurried down, too. But one blasé visitor pooh-poohed us by saying that the Whooping Cranes come every year and he already had lots of pictures last year. Helene and I were shocked. Yes, the cranes do seem to come back here every year. Last year, a pair mated and laid eggs (but no surviving chicks, alas). One amazing year 8 cranes spent the winter at the Prairie. But this is the reason we get excited--there are so few of them, there is no guarantee that they will come back next year. Whooping Cranes are critically endangered. They have been brought back (just barely) from the brink of extinction. At one point there were only 21 of them left in the wild. Now, there are a whopping (whooping!) 599 in the wild and in captivity combined. That's it. In the whole world. And here in Gainesville we are privileged to have between 1-8 of them as honored visitors every year. Over the years, I've visited several bird refuges around the country where Whooping Cranes have were rumored to be, and never saw one in the wild until I came to Paynes Prairie. I never want to forget that being able to see them in Gainesville every year really is a special treat and just can't be taken for granted.

Foraging for Tubers

Whooper and Pickerel Weed
These are the birds that are (mostly, right now) hatched in captivity and "mothered" by crane colored hand puppets and people in costumes. In the early days, there were so few Whooping Cranes in existence that the chicks that hatched from rescued eggs had no adults to teach them. The conservationists at the Crane Foundation had to figure out how to teach the chicks to behave like cranes, while at the same time keeping them from imprinting on humans and becoming too used to them. So the chicks are always fed or taught by people in white crane costumes, and their only exposure to "humans" is to be intentionally scared by them so they will fear people. When they are mature, the young cranes are led from Wisconsin to Florida by ultralight aircraft, piloted by a person in a crane suit. This happens every year and people eagerly follow the progress of the migration online and watch from below as they fly over on their way to Chassahowitzka, Florida, in the fall. It's an amazing story, and I encourage you to learn more about it at the Crane Foundation website. Our family lived in Wisconsin for many years and had the opportunity to visit the Crane Foundation in Baraboo. It is a marvelous place.

Whooping Crane
So on this 43rd Earth Day (created by Gaylord Nelson, former Governor of Wisconsin--there is something special about that state!) I honor the people who have worked and still work tirelessly to preserve our natural heritage. But we must recognize that, despite great hope and success, we are living in perilous times. We are seeing species decline and disappear every day due to habitat loss, pollution and over-hunting, and now climate change. There is much work to do if we want to be sure that those Whooping Cranes can return next year. Our air, water, land, animals, plants, fungi are all connected. It's all important. It all matters. Our earth. Our home.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm always so excited when I see them. Wouldn't it be amazing if they managed to raise some chicks one of these years?
      Thanks for reading!