The Crown Jewel of North American Crane Populations
Cellular Tracking Technologies is privileged to be working with the scientists employed by both the US and Canadian federal governments in the international team effort to monitor and protect the last remaining natural population of the Whooping Crane (Grus americana).
The so-called “Wood Buffalo-Aransas” population is the only remaining group of Whooping Cranes that has continued to nest, migrate, and overwinter in the traditional areas where they were first documented by Western ornithologists. The entire Whooping Crane species consists of only 437 wild individuals among four populations, three of which were artificially reared and reintroduced to the wild, plus 162 individuals in captivity (as of 2011). However, the only surviving remnant of the naturally-occurring Whooping Crane population is the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, consisting of only 283 individuals (as of the winter of 2011-12). This is the only group of Whooping Cranes that has managed to continually pass on the traditional ways of life of this species, in an unbroken chain of chick-rearing and parenting by birds that can live more than 30 years in the wild.
The vital nesting grounds lie in the vast Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest national park in Canada. The park is an immense area, a sprawling 17,300 square miles (44,807 km²), spanning northeastern Alberta into the southern Northwest Territories. Amazingly, Wood Buffalo National Park is larger than nine US states, and roughly twice the size of CTT’s home state of New Jersey. It’s also larger in area than Switzerland.
The equally vital wintering grounds lie in southern Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico. In winter, Whooping Cranes are seafood aficionados, preying on blue crabs and clams in the brackish Gulf Coast marshes. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, near Rockport, TX, is one of the few areas of protected public property where people can reliably visit and expect to see these rare and special birds. This is also the exact area where Hurricane Harvey came ashore as a powerful Category 4 storm on 26 August 2017, with sustained winds of 130 mph (209 km/h). Hurricane Harvey went on to set records for both the astounding amounts of rainfall in the Houston metropolitan area, as well as the cost of the damage inflicted to human structures. The storm is currently tied with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone to hit the United States. Luckily, the Whooping Crane population was still up in Canada when the storm hit.
The traditional migratory route of this species takes the birds from the northern extreme of Alberta, southeastward across the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan, and crossing into the US in Montana or North Dakota. The birds continue south through five additional states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and finally Texas.
In migration Whooping Cranes are highly efficient soaring birds, lofting thousands of feet into the air on thermal updrafts and efficiently gliding for miles before their next round of subsidized lift in another column of rising air. These birds can cover hundreds of miles in a single day of migratory flight, typically at an altitude high enough that birders on the ground will never see or hear them. But the birds know where they are going, with adults having been taught the routes by their parents, and their own offspring in tow, they are usually extremely particular about where they stop to rest during migration. Occasionally the birds run into uncooperative weather systems and they are forced to rest in unfamiliar areas. This is perhaps the most dangerous time in their annual cycle, when they are most at risk of collisions with manmade structures, such as power lines, wind turbines, or cars.
Cellular Tracking Technologies is working closely with the dedicated scientists who monitor and study these amazing birds. Our CTT-1000-BT3 (3rd Gen) GPS-GSM tracking devices are recording GPS fixes every 30 minutes, with our Activity Index triaxial accelerometer data quantifying the periods between GPS fixes, 24h per day, every day. The telemetry data are typically uploaded to the Internet on a daily basis, however most of the birds nest in parts of Wood Buffalo beyond cellular coverage. The oversummering data are saved however, and eventually transmitted when the birds begin their southward journeys, usually in late September.
On the breeding grounds, researchers are investigating how the birds are coping with climate change and associated impacts on the nesting cycle. On the wintering grounds, researchers are monitoring how the birds’ habitat recovers from the vast disturbance of Hurricane Harvey. In the migratory corridor, the birds are “followed” closely via daily data updates, used by teams of people to monitor the health of each tagged bird on its journey. This species is rightly a high priority for conservation, and we do everything we can to support the recovery of the species, through intensive monitoring and research.