I follow whooping cranes. Not literally, although some people do.
In fall 2001, when Operation Migration started using ultra light aircraft to lead juvenile whooping cranes from the International Crane Foundation breeding site in Wisconsin to St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, their original route took them right over my rooftop. (Again, not literally, but darned close!)
For many years, cohorts of the endangered species learned a fall migration route over Indiana. In the following years, many whooping cranes turned up at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area, just south of Linton. That’s my birding turf! Sometimes they’d spend a week or month or the entire winter there.
One year, I saw a dozen whooping cranes in one pond. Another year, there were 19—distant, but still visible enough to count. Once, a whooping crane walked out of a cornfield and approached my car to within just a few feet. What a thrill! One autumn I saw two adults and their brown-headed baby forage not far from a parking area. I went home and looked at the International Crane Foundation website and learned that the first and only naturally hatched and reared whooping crane in the reintroduced eastern migratory flock was with its parents in south-central Indiana. Holy moly! I saw it!
One spring, a friend of mine sent me a photo of two whooping cranes that landed in his farm pond—private property—in the outskirts of Bloomington, where I lived. I sent that photo to the ICF, and they were thrilled to receive it. The leg bands on those birds revealed a soap opera: the male, 1343, was part of a nonmigratory resident flock in Florida. He was 8 years old, and this was his first voyage out of Florida! The siren frolicking with him in my friend’s pond was 1905, and had nested with crane 804 three times previously, back in Wisconsin.
I thought cranes mated for life?! Over the winter, 1905 had apparently dumped 804 and took up with 1343, even luring him to migrate for the first time.
Eva Szyszkoski is a crane tracker for the International Crane Foundation. She said longtime partners 1905 and 804 spent the winter months together at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in Florida with five other migrating whoopers and two Florida nonmigratory cranes, one of which was 1343. In two previous years, 1343 had paired with a nonmigratory female.
“The winter passed by with no indication that something amazing was going on out on the prairie,” Szyszkoski wrote on the ICF website.
Then on March 6, 804 showed up all by himself at Goose Pond. Crane trackers were shocked and alarmed. What happened to 1905?
“Immediately I and others began thinking that something bad had happened to his mate (1905),” Szyszkoski wrote. “I dreaded having to try to find her body. Paynes Prairie is packed with alligators of all sizes, hiding in the marsh vegetation and lounging on the banks.”
So she headed out to the Florida site where she had last seen 1905, hoping to hear her radio signal. She found the bird alive and well, hanging out with a nonmigratory male. At least, he was still nonmigratory in late March.
On March 29, crane 804 turned up on his breeding turf in Wisconsin and began associating with 908, a 3-year-old female.
Then came my friend’s photo of 1905 and 1343, splashing together in a pond, and the crane trackers went crazy.
“I was speechless,” Szyszkoski said.
“Can you believe it?!?! 1905 must be some hottie to have lured her 7-year-old nonmigratory boyfriend north,” wrote Liz Condie of Operation Migration, on its website.
The two whoopers spent one night in my friend’s field and departed the next morning. Four days later, on April 10, 1905 was back in breeding territory at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, but trackers could not confirm that 1343 was with her.
Meanwhile, 804’s fling with a young thing apparently did not last long, and on April 13, 1905 and 804 were together again. All, apparently, was forgiven. On April 26, their nest was found, according to Journey North, which keeps track of individual whooping cranes.
So what happened to poor nonmigratory 1343, all alone in the Midwest? Just 10 days later, he showed up again in Paynes Prairie, Florida. Back home. No one knows how far north he ventured before he turned around and made an odd, southbound-in-April trip.
In the years since then, 1905 has twice nested with other males, but in 2014, she nested with 804 again. Each time, the nest has failed for various reasons. And 1343 hasn’t left Florida since he flew an estimated 2,400 miles in 10 days.
I no longer live in Bloomington, Indiana, where hundreds and sometimes thousands of sandhill cranes literally flew over my house each spring and fall. But I still follow whooping cranes via Operation Migration and Journey North.
I’m hoping to visit the International Crane Foundation later this month as part of the Bird Watcher’s Digest Reader Rendezvous. I’m thrilled at the prospect of visiting an organization that does such important work in endangered species recovery, research and education. You bet I’ll be buying a T-shirt.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.