Last week marked the 1 year anniversary of the release of the first cohort of whooping cranes at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. We received the first cohort of 10 cranes on 16 February 2011 but they weren't truly released until we opened the gate and let them out of the top-netted pen on 14 March. From that day forward they were considered released. Most of them including #'s 3 & 4 stuck around the pen and took advantage of the food that was provided for the next 2 months but they still had to survive - picking safe places to roost at night (since most nights they roosted outside the protected pen) and safe places to spend the day foraging and resting. Sadly only 3 of those original 10 birds survived to celebrate this anniversary and while that number isn't as high as we'd like it to be numbers don't tell the whole story. Today we celebrate the 3 survivors and hope they'll all still be around next year to mark another milestone.
#5 was different from the start. When she came out of the top-netted pen she separated from the other birds and spent only a short time in the marsh north of the release pen before moving into crawfish fields in Acadia Parish. She never joined the other birds or returned to the pen, so she, more than any other released crane I've ever worked with, was truly on her own from the very beginning! She has moved around some, likely responding to changing water levels as the fields she used were drawn down and flooded. She is currently residing in Jefferson-Davis Parish, which has truly become one of the more popular parishes among the released whooping cranes.
Once food was no longer provided at the pen #3 moved north to rice fields in Evangeline Parish with three other birds. He separated from them several months later after they had moved into Jefferson-Davis Parish. It turned out to be good that he separated from them as his previous companions were L8 & 10 who were shot and killed and L1 who disappeared at the same time as the shooting incident. He too has moved around some and was seen several times this winter with a small number of sandhill cranes. Most recently he moved further north than he’s ever been into Avoyelles Parish. We believe the birds that have used agriculture fields move in response to changing management in the fields but we’re still learning and I’m certainly curious what prompted his recent move to a brand new area. Hopefully time will tell but we don’t know for sure.
And finally there is #4. In some sense he has been the most predictable of the bunch. When most of the birds dispersed and moved away from the pen he was part of a trio that simply moved to another location in the marsh, one that still had water despite the drought conditions. He spent all summer and most of the fall in the marsh not too far from the release pen with #2. Then in late October they left and moved to several different locations ending up in Jefferson-Davis Parish where unfortunately #2 was found dead, likely killed by a predator. #4 moved around a bit more after his companion died before ultimately coming back to the release pen on 31 December. Of course when he arrived he found the 2011 cohort of 16 juveniles who, believing the release pen belonged to them, did not welcome him into the flock. However #4 was persistent and hung around, eventually outlasting the aggression directed at him from the newly released juveniles. In fact as spring approached the tables turned and he became the more aggressive one – directing his aggression towards the young males while he tried to win over the young females. It didn’t take long before he’d found a female who was as interested in him as he was in her and that lucky young bird is L7-11! The two have been seen unison calling together as well as displaying pre-copulatory behavior and we hope they will become our first breeding pair once they are both old enough!
While these three have a lot of milestones left to meet, they have succeeded at meeting their first major milestone – surviving one year on their own in the wild of Louisiana and we couldn’t be prouder or more excited!!
Update and photos (well 2 of the 3) by Sara Zimorski