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Rainbow Lorikeets, birds of Cairns (Australia), and Twitter

March 5, 2018 Leave a comment

Today’s post features photos of the birds I saw while I was in Cairns, Australia. I primarily birded around the botanical gardens and the waterfront area (Cairns Esplanade).

Also, if you have a twitter account, you can follow me at: https://twitter.com/Ft_Mc_Biologist

I primarily plan to post wildlife pictures I have taken, many of which will feature parrots.

Rainbow Lorikeets were very common in the Cairns area. They were usually present in groups and they are very colorful, active and noisy. There’s a group of trees downtown they like to roost in,  and as the sun sets, hundreds of them gather in these trees and make an incredible amount of noise.

I saw the above birds downtown. They stayed upside down like that for a while and beak sparred with each other.

Lorikeets consume a lot of nectar and the bird above is licking nectar off of some flowers. Lorikeets have long, brushy tongues that allow them to maximize the amount of nectar they can get, and that allow them to reach deep into long flowers.

A lot of nectar-feeding birds simply lap up nectar and pollen without destroying flowers. Lorikeets, on the other hand, can be destructive at times. I took the above photo at the Cairns Botanic Garden. This mess was created by a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets feeding on flowers in a tall tree. The bird on the ground picking through the mess is an Australian Brush Turkey.

Here’s one of the lorikeets that was contributing to the mess. These birds were quite high up so the pictures I took of them aren’t great. Rainbow Lorikeets were (I think) the only bird I saw every day on my trip to Australia.

There’s a large group of Spectacled Flying Foxes (fruit bats) that roosts downtown in Cairns as well. They take off at night to feed on fruit, and gather in the roost tree to sleep during the day.

The below slide show contains more pictures of land-based wildlife I took while I was in Cairns:

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Below are photos of shorebirds and other water birds. The pictures are primarily from the Cairns Esplanade, but there are a few lakes at the botanic gardens that have a lot of birds around them. If you are in the Cairns area and like birds, you can’t go wrong by spending some time at the Esplanade. There are numerous shorebirds along the beach (especially in the early morning), and birds are abundant in the woodsy parks in the area as well. I managed to spend most of the day there, wandering around watching the birds.

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Photos from Kakadu National Park

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Here are a few slideshows of photos I took while I was in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia in September 2017.

This first slideshow contains photos I took at the Yellow Water Billabong on a boat ride with Yellow Water Cruises. I took two cruises (one in the late afternoon and one in the early morning), and they were definitely worth it. There is an abundance of bird life around the billabong, and Saltwater Crocodiles were quite common. I also saw a couple of snakes and several Agile Wallabies. A boat cruise is a good way to see waterbirds and reptiles in the park, as it is generally unsafe to hike near water in northern Australia due to the presence of Saltwater Crocodiles. These crocodiles can be aggressive and will attack (and sometimes kill and consume) people. I did go hiking in Kakadu, but avoided going near the water.

Crocodile Munch

Beware of crocodiles!

Click through the slideshow to see the wildlife of the Yellow Water Billabong!

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The Asian Water Buffalo in the park are not native and were introduced to the park in the 1880s so they could be hunted. The feral pigs are not native either, and they can unfortunately be quite destructive. Park authorities periodically conduct culls of them, but as they (pigs) are quite fecund, there are still a lot of them around.

The Comb-crested Jacanas display some rather unusual behaviours. Most bird species are monogamous or polygynous (where one male mates with several females). However, jacanas are polyandrous, as females will mate with multiple males, and males incubate the eggs. The young are fairly independent when they hatch, but they do stick around with the male for a while after hatching as he will protect them and guide them to foraging areas.

Magpie Geese also have an unusual mating system. Rather than being strictly monogamous like most geese, breeding trios are common in this species, where one male will pair with two females. The females and male will share the nest and care of the young. I should note that Magpie Geese are in a different family (Anseranatiade) than other geese (which are in the family Anatidae). The Magpie Goose lineage appears to be very old, although only one species remains in the family.

The below slideshow shows pictures I took on various walks in the park. The bush fire pictured was near the town of Jabiru. The Aboriginal people of Australia sometimes intentionally start such bush fires to manage vegetation. This is something they have done for millennia, and it is something they still do. There are numerous reasons for this practice. For example, it can encourage new vegetation growth which attracts grazing animals that can be easily hunted.

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Kakadu is also known for its Aboriginal Rock art. Some rock art sites are off-limits to visitors, while other sites are easily accessed and can be viewed by visitors. I took pictures of rock art, as well as the informational signs about it. The Warradjan Cultural Centre in Kakadu has a lot of information on the rock art and other aspects of the culture and history of the Aboriginal people of the region.

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Next up will be pictures of birds from Cairns, with a focus on Rainbow Lorikeets. I saw numerous Rainbow Lorikeets in Kakadu, but didn’t get any good pictures.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

I have five hours to kill at an airport, so I am updating my blog! Merry Christmas everyone!

Today, I will write about the Red-tailed Black Cockatoos I saw in Kakadu National Park, Australia, in September, 2017. I headed to Australia primarily to go birdwatching and see other wildlife, and my trip covered Cairns, the Cape York Peninsula, and Kakadu National Park. Two black cockatoo species (Black Palms and Red-tailed Blacks) were on my target list of animals to see and I managed to see both. Finding them was extremely thrilling!

Range

Range of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. Map based on http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=22684744

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banskii) are impressive and charismatic birds. They are big (about 60 cm tall), are very loud, and have large, powerful beaks. Like all other black cockatoos, they are extremely rare in aviculture outside of Australia, and as a result the price for a single bird in North America can be very high ($14 000 or more).

Red tailed Black

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo photographed in Kakadu National Park.

Wild red-tailed blacks have a large and fragmented range in Australia. There are five subspecies: C. b. banksii (Bank’s Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. macrorhynchus (Northern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. samueli (Inland Red-tailed Black Cockatoo), C. b. graptogyne (South-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo) and C. b. naso (Forest Red-tailed Black Cockatoo). The birds I saw in Kakadu were Northern Red-tailed Blacks.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo

A Northern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo photographed in Kakadu National Park. The lack of bright red in the tail indicates this is a female or a young male.

The various subspecies differ in their foraging habits, beak sizes, female colour patterns, and conservation statuses. Overall, red-tails are not globally endangered and are listed by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) as “Least Concern.” However, some populations are faring better than others. The South-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoo is rare (< 1000 birds exist in the wild) and is considered endangered in Australia. Additionally, Bank’s Red-tailed Black Cockatoos are declining in the southern portion of their range (northern Queensland).

Red tailed black cockatoos2

A family group of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos foraging in Kakadu National Park.

Adult male and female red-tailed blacks can be differentiated based on their tail colours: males have bright red panels on their tails while females have orange or pale yellow-orange stripes on their tails. Males younger than about four years look like females. The birds pictured above appeared to be an adult male and female with their offspring. I often saw red-tailed blacks in Kakadu in groups of three, which were most likely to be a breeding pair and their offspring. Red-tails usually only fledge one chick each time they breed, although two is a possibility. Even when I found a loose flock of about thirty or forty red-tails in a grove of trees, many birds were perched together in groups of three (see photo below).

Red Tailed Black Family

Three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos. An adult male (note the solid red in the tail) is on the left.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoos were common in Kakadu. They seemed to be comfortable foraging or resting up in trees, as well as foraging on the ground. I saw a few groups foraging on the ground in recently-burned forests (maybe they like toasted seeds?). Most birds I saw were present as pairs, trios, or in small flocks of up to ~40 birds. Active birds were generally quite loud and called frequently, so they were hard to miss. However, birds resting in trees were fairly quiet. Although the flocks of red-tails I saw weren’t huge, flocks can at times contain hundreds of birds, especially where food is abundant (such as at peanut farm plantations).

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo3

A Red-tailed Black Cockatoo foraging in a recently-burned open forest.

Red Tailed Black pair

Male (left) and Female (right) Red-tailed Black Cockatoos seen in Kakadu National Park.

During the hottest part of the day (it got to 40 C while I was in Kakadu), Red-tailed Black Cockatoos spend a lot of time resting in trees. I certainly couldn’t blame them – some birds I saw were panting and clearing feeling the heat. I also saw several red-tailed blacks drinking from a muddy, shallow billabong during the middle of the day. It was the dry season when I visited Kakadu, and most groups of cockatoos I found were close to a water source.

Red Tailed Black Getting Drink

Three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos getting a drink of water.

Overall, I saw three cockatoo species in Kakadu: Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, and Bare-eyed Cockatoos. Galahs (Rose-breasted Cockatoos) also occur in Kakadu, although I didn’t see any while I was there. I did, however, see a large flock of them at the Musgrave Roadhouse, on the Cape York Peninsula.

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Galahs (Rose-breasted Cockatoos) photographed near the Musgrave Roadhouse in northeastern Australia.

 

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Galahs in the Musgrave area of northeastern Australia.

 

I will share more of my wildlife photos from Kakadu in my next post. If you’d like more information on Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, please see the below links:

More Information

Conservation of South-eastern red-tailed black-cockatoo Calyptorhynchus banksii graptogyne

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Recovery Plan

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo Information from the World Parrot Trust

Recordings of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos

 

Bare-eyed Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park

November 9, 2017 1 comment

I took a trip to Australia this September (2017), primarily to view birds and other wildlife. I spent time on the Cape York Peninsula (which is the peninsula on the northeast corner of the continent), the city of Cairns, and Kakadu National Park, which is in the Northern Territory. I took a lot of photos, which I am going to start sharing here.

I’ll start with photos I took in Kakadu, the location of which is shown in the map below:

kakadu

I was there during the middle of September, which is the dry season in northern Australia. It was also hot (up to 39 C) while I was there, and some of the waterbodies in the park were dried up. However, much of the park is more accessible during the dry season, as roads won’t be blocked by floodwater.

I explored the park on my own in a rented vehicle I picked up in Darwin. My first stop in the park was at the Aurora Kakadu Lodge, so I could pick up a park pass and have a look at the birds on the hotel grounds. Some sprinklers were on, which attracted all sorts of birds, including a large flock of Bare-eyed Cockatoos (Cacatua sanguinea). The birds were attracted to the sprinkler water, as well as the nice green grass and plants being watered by it.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos

Bare-eyed Cockatoos playing in a sprinkler at Kakadu National Park.

These Bare-eyed Cockatoos were among some of the most amusing wild birds I have ever watched. In that way, they reminded me of the keas I saw about ten years ago in New Zealand. The Bare-eyed Cockatoos were very playful and would wrestle each other like puppies, tackling each other and rolling on their backs, all the while squealing with apparent delight. I’ve seen many pet lories, caiques, and cockatoos act that way, but it was interesting seeing wild birds play like that. Cockatoos even have beaks that are shaped in a way that makes them look like they are smiling, so they can be very charming animals,

Corellas playing

Wild Bare-eyed Cockatoos playing under a sprinkler.

Corella

No, he’s not dead – he (she?) had been knocked over by another bird and got back up shortly after I took this picture.

Corellas

Bare-eyed Cockatoos

I took some video of these birds as well:

Bare-eyed Cockatoos (also called “Little Corellas”) were quite common throughout the park, both around lodges/camping areas and in wilderness areas. I saw several around the Cooinda Lodge, which is where I stayed while I was in Kakadu. They typically occurred in flocks of at least a few dozen birds, and sometimes a few Sulphur-crested Cockatoos would be associated with them. Bare-eyed Cockatoo flocks can number in the thousands, especially in agricultural areas.

Mixed cockatoos

A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (foreground) and two Bare-eyed Cockatoos in Kakadu National Park.

I noticed that the wild Australian Bare-eyed Cockatoos I saw were a bit bigger than most of the captive ones I have seen in Canada. The reason is that most Bare-eyed Cockatoos in North America are the descendants of birds that were originally caught on the island of New Guinea. The Bare-eyed Cockatoos that occur on New Guinea (subspecies Cacatua sanguinea transfreta) are generally a bit smaller than the Australian ones.

corella map

Bare-eyed Cockatoo Range. Orange shows where they are native and purple shows where they were introduced. Map from http://www.iucnredlist.org/

Although they can be active and playful, during the hottest times of the day, Bare-eyed Cockatoos (and many other birds) will usually rest in trees, preferably in the shade. I saw many flocks of resting cockatoos in trees, and on very hot days they would sometimes be panting. They usually rested in woodlands close to a source of water.

Corella tree 3

Unless there’s a nice, cooling sprinkler around, many cockatoos spent time resting during the hottest part of the day.

Corellas 2

A pair of Bare-eyed Cockatoos. The bird on the right was panting, as it was about 39 C outside.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos usually forage on the ground but will sometimes feed in trees, and they will eat a variety of grass seeds (grains), nuts, fruits, berries, roots, and insect larvae. They will eat a variety of crop plants, and can be very common in agricultural areas.

Corellas Grazing

Bare-eyed Cockatoos foraging on the ground.

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A Bare-eyed Cockatoo forages in a tree.

Bare-eyed Cockatoos were the most common parrot species that I saw in Kakadu. The other common cockatoo species I saw, the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, will be the subject of my next post.

 

Bird? Or Pile of Leaves?

January 23, 2015 1 comment
Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque

The above example of camouflage in the the animal kingdom is courtesy of the Common Pauraque. A resting pauraque looks very much like a pile of dirt and leaves.  During the day, they rest on an open place on the ground and remain very still so predators will have trouble detecting them. Females also build their nests right on the ground and rely on camouflage for protection.

The particular bird in the above picture was pointed out to me by a tour guide at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas. He roosts in the exact same place everyday, so has been photographed by many birders. I even saw his picture in the February 2015 issue of “BirdWatching” magazine.

The guide gave us a good tip on finding roosting pauraques – they often roost on the ground among shrubs where there are a lot of leaves. However, they don’t like to walk much (they have tiny legs) and their wingspans are about a foot and a half wide. So, they will generally be found roosting in spots they can get to by flight. Due to their wingspans, they will be found roosting in areas with suitable flight paths (over a foot wide) leading to them.

Common pauraques are in the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae), which is a family of nocturnal/crepuscular insectivorous birds that generally hunt their prey on the wing. Common Pauraques occur from southern Texas to central South America in woodland areas that have some open areas nearby for foraging. They do rely on their sight while foraging, so they are most active at dusk, near dawn, and on moonlit nights. They do most of their foraging on the wing, but can also jump from the ground to catch insects, and they may run a bit on the ground (despite their tiny legs) to catch insects.

Estero Llano Grande is a good place to see Common Pauraques. I saw a second one fairly close to the first one that was pointed out to me.

Common Pauraque

Common Pauraque

Estero Llano Grande is considered a birding ‘hotspot’ due to the wide variety of habitats found there. It’s also a good place for butterflies. Here are a few more pictures of wildlife I saw there:

Northern Cardinal

There are several bird feeders around the visitor center, where quite a few different birds (such as green jays, inca doves, and black-crested titmice) could be seen. I managed to get a picture of a northern cardinal.  They’re beautiful birds that I don’t get to see very often.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Buff-bellied Hummingbird

There were also plenty of hummingbirds visiting the hummingbird feeders. Most of them were buff-bellied hummingbirds, which can be found in the US along the Gulf Coast.  In the US, they breed in southern Texas, but some of them migrate a bit north for the winter and stay along the coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida.

Hummingbirds can be very interesting to watch. Despite their tiny size, they can be quite territorial and often chase each other from feeders or flowers.

American Coot

American Coot

There’s a large viewing area by the visitor’s center where one can watch birds at a large wetland. Quite a large variety of waterfowl and wading birds can be seen there, including coots, ducks, ibises and egrets.  The bird in the above picture, an American coot, looks somewhat like a duck but is actually in the rail family.  Note the strange-looking feet – they are not webbed and the toes are lobed.

Gadwall and Northern Shoveller

Gadwall and Northern Shoveller

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

The ducks were also interesting to watch, as many species actually pair up on their wintering grounds, and a few males were already courting females. That’s what the Gadwall in the above picture is doing, although the female gadwalls are out of frame.

There were about seven Yellow-crowned Night Herons around “Alligator Lake.” And yes, I did see a few alligators:

American Alligator

American Alligator

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadees were quite common. The only place to see them in the US is the far south of Texas, but they are very widespread and common in Central and South America.  They can often be found perched on branches near water bodies, where they will repeatedly fly out to capture an insect or small fish.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

Above is a Black Phoebe. Like the Great Kiskadee, they often perch on branches near water bodies and fly out from the branch, grab an insect, and then fly back to the same or a nearby perch.

Altamira Oriole Nest

Altamira Oriole Nest

Like the Great Kiskadee, the Altamira Oriole is a south Texas specialty.  They are striking, black and orange birds that occur in Central America, Mexico, and the far south of Texas. The above picture shows an Altamira Oriole nest.

I would have liked to see the actual birds but didn’t get a chance that day. However, on the last day of my trip, I went  to the Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, and saw one just as I was walking back to my car. He was even nice enough to perch still so I take his photo:

Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

Texas Birding Trip: Birds of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

In my last post, I wrote about Whooping Cranes and the trip I took to see them at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Whooping Cranes were the highlight of that trip, but the refuge is home to many other bird species. Here are a few pictures of birds and other wildlife at the refuge:

pelicans

Brown and American White Pelicans

Both species of pelican that occur in North America were quite common in the area.  The smaller Brown Pelicans are coastal species and occur in the area year-round and breed there. American White Pelicans, however, are generally migratory, although there are populations in Texas and Mexico that do not migrate.

These two pelican species have different foraging styles. Brown Pelicans will dive for their food, and I frequently saw them dive straight into the water from the air. American White Pelicans do not dive like that and scoop prey from the water. They will also steal food from other species, especially cormorants.

more pelicans

Brown Pelicans and a Neotropical Cormorant

The above picture shows three adult and one juvenile Brown Pelican. The dark brown bird is the juvenile. Note also the white necks on the adults. Adult Brown Pelicans have white necks when they are not breeding, while during the breeding season, the backs of their necks will be dark brown.

The black bird in above picture is a Neotropical Cormorant. Cormorants are frequently seen in the company of pelicans and both Neotropical and Double-crested Cormorants occur on the south Texas coast. These two cormorant species are not always easy to differentiate, although the neotropicals are smaller, have shorter beaks, and have longer tails. The shape of the gular (throat) pouch also differs between the two species.

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

I actually took the above photo in Lethbridge, Alberta, but it shows one structural difference between breeding and non-breeding American White Pelicans. During the early breeding season, American White Pelicans develop a round, horny disk on the top mandible of the beak. This is lost after the breeding season.

pelicans_etc

Brown Pelicans,  Cormorant, Caspian Terns (with red beaks), and Gull-billed Tern (back left)

I managed to see quite a few “lifer” birds on the trip, as I’d never been to the east coast. A “lifer” would be a bird that I had never seen before. The Gull-billed Tern (seen in the above photo) and the Neotropical Cormorant were lifers for me. It’s always exciting to see a see a new species, and ever better for me if I can get a decent picture.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Osprey were very common, but I also managed to see a Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are well-known for having the fastest dive speed among birds, as they can reach speeds of 320 km/hour during a dive. The species was considered endangered in the United States during the mid twentieth century, and population declines were largely due to the use of organochlorine pesticides (primarily DDT). These pesticides caused females to lay eggs with thin shells. The species has since made a recovery due to DDT bans and the release of captive-bred birds.

turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Shorebirds are abundant on the gulf coast during winter, as many species that breed further north overwinter there. Shown above is a Ruddy Turnstone. They spend the winters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA and breed in the high Arctic. Their breeding plumage is much sharper than their winter plumage.

Willet

Willet

Willets (one is shown above) are medium shorebirds that overwinter on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and breed on the north Atlantic coast and inland in central Canada and the northwestern USA. They are rather plain shorebirds, but in flight, they are easy to recognize due to the sharp, black and white striped patterns they have on the undersides of their wings.

egret

Snowy Egret

Herons were also quite common, and the above photo shows a Snowy Egret (which is in the heron family).  Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets also occur in the area.

dolphin

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

Dolphins were also quite common and often swam beside or behind the boat. I also saw several dolphins while on a boat trip off of South Padre Island.

curlews

Long-billed Curlew

I took the photo of the above bird (a Long-billed Curlew) in a field between Harlingen and Corpus Christi. A very large flock of curlews was foraging in the field. Long-billed Curlews often forage for worms in pastures and their long bills help them probe deep into mud. On coasts, where some birds overwinter, they will forage for shrimp and crabs and can often reach them in their mud burrows.

A Ferruginous Hawk and Sprague’s Pipit were also present alongside the curlews. These three species are declining in Canada (the Ferruginous Hawk is particularly scarce), so seeing all of them in one spot was quite thrilling for me.  I couldn’t get a decent picture of the hawk (it was too far away), but here’s a photo of one I took near Mountain View, Alberta.

ferr

Ferruginous Hawk

The Texas pictures were all taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 camera. It has a 60X zoom lens, so I didn’t have to get too close to the birds to get decent pictures.

The Whooping Cranes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

December 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Suddenly, across one of those glimpses of eternity, there flocked the forms of two majestic birds; and from them came a far croaking trumpet sound. By their long wings, long necks, long legs and snowy plumes, I later knew they were two white cranes, the noblest thing that flies, sailing on to their northern home, and the ring triumphant of that stirring trumpet call still echoes in my heart.

 Ernest Thompson Seton, on the Whooping Crane, from “Trail of the Artist-Naturalist, 1940.


Last post, I wrote about the parrots of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. My main reason for visiting Texas was to attend the Rio Grande Birdwatching Festival. I chose this festival in particular because I would get to see wild parrots, and because one of the post-festival trips featured one of North America’s rarest birds: the Whooping Crane.

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The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) came perilously close to extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. Populations had been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction, and by 1941, there were only 23 Whooping Cranes left in the world. Today, there are about 600 of them, with about 400 of those being wild birds.

Increasing the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild was a very difficult task for conservationists. The breeding range of last population was not discovered until 1954, well after it had become apparent that the species was in mortal danger. The species also has a low growth rate, as Whooping Cranes do not breed until age four (at the youngest) and pairs typically raise only one chick to fledgling each year. It helps that Whooping Cranes can be bred in captivity, but ensuring the survival of large numbers of released birds is difficult because they must learn their migration routes. To get around this problem, some cranes have been conditioned to follow ultra-light aircraft, which can then escort the birds on the appropriate migration route.

Whooping crane at the  Calgary Zoo

Whooping crane at the Calgary Zoo

Today, there is only one self-sustaining wild Whooping Crane population, which is the one that overwinters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. There are also ongoing efforts to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana, and a migratory population that overwinters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin. The latter population has almost 100 birds in it.

Efforts to establish a “Rocky Mountain” population that would breed in the northern Rocky Mountains and winter in New Mexico was not successful. This is because the population was started by placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests. The Sandhill Cranes raised some Whooping Crane chicks, but as adults, the Whooping Cranes did not try to mate with each other but courted Sandhill Cranes instead.

Two Sandhill Cranes with their chick

Two Sandhill Cranes with their chick. Whooping Crane chicks resemble Sandhill Crane chicks.

There is also a small population of non-migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida (about 20 birds) and these are the descendants of captive-bred individuals that were released into the wild. No more captive-bred birds will be released into this flock as it has suffered from a high mortality rate.

Despite the difficulties inherent with conserving them, Whooping Cranes are no longer in imminent danger of disappearing and can thus be seen as a conservation success story (albeit one that is still ongoing, as they are still endangered).

I live in Alberta, and part of Wood Buffalo National Park, where Whooping Cranes breed, is in Alberta. However, the Whooping Cranes there are (apparently) very difficult to see and tend to nest in some very inaccessible muskeg areas. So, to have a chance at seeing these rare cranes, I headed to Texas.

The Whooping Crane tour group I was with stayed in the Rockport Area, and took a boat ride into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes. It was a grey and chilly day, but that didn’t matter, as I managed to see 19 Whooping Cranes, including some juveniles.  This year had been a particularly good one for the population, as at least thirty-two chicks were raised to fledgling.

family

The above photo shows an adult pair with their offspring, which is the one with some rust-coloured feathers. The young stay with their parents during their first winter.

That adult Whooping Cranes are territorial was apparent from seeing them in the wild. Each pair or trio (pair with young) had its own feeding area located at least a few hundred meters from other cranes. Birds would sometimes get too close to each other, which would result in some vocalizations and a threat display.

crane2

Cranes would sometimes erect their ‘bustle’ feathers (as seen above) and call out to each other. These calls presumably help the cranes maintain their territory boundaries. Cranes have unusual and distinctive-sounding calls because they have very long tracheae. In most birds, the trachea goes straight from the pharynx (back of throat), down to the syrinx (which is just above the lungs), and then it branches to form two bronchi that connect to the lungs. In a crane, the trachea is not straight, but forms a long, looping coil along the sternum (breastbone). Their long, coiled tracheae allow Whooping Cranes to produce resonating calls.

angrycrane

Alarmed Whooping Crane. Note the erect ‘bustle,’ which is composed of long feathers that cover the tail and lower back.

Occasionally, a pair of Whooping Cranes would engage in a courtship display, where they would open their wings and leap up and down, facing each other. It was a wonderful thing to get to see, and I managed to get a picture:

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Sometimes, a bird would start a courtship display while its partner just foraged or gazed into the distance.

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Although I did get to see their courtship displays, the cranes spend most of their time foraging. They are omnivorous, but eat more animal than plant matter.  Blue crabs are one of the most important sources of food for them at the Aransas refuge, but they will also eat other crustaceans, molluscs, plant matter such as berries, and small vertebrates.

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As can be seen in the above pictures, many Whooping Cranes have leg bands so that biologists can track the activities of individual birds. However, not all cranes I saw were banded, and biologists often avoid banding them now, as being captured and handled can be stressful for a wild bird. This does not mean that biologists cannot identify individual birds, as cranes can be identified by their voices. Cranes can be difficult to differentiate by just listening to them, but by recording their calls and making a digital ‘voiceprint’ for each crane, individual birds can now be recognized and studied.

That these graceful and stately birds can still be seen living in the wild is due to the hard work of multiple generations of conservationists, both amateur and professional. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to view them in the wild, and I hope that future generations will be able to as well.

Categories: Birds, Travel Tags: ,
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