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The Importance of Wetland Habitats for Whooping Cranes during Migration: World Wetlands Day

While current land use practices and climatic conditions have reduced the extent of naturally occurring temporary and permanent wetlands in the Great Plains, historic records indicate that ephemeral, temporary, and seasonal wetlands were once a prominent feature throughout the region. While vital for the recovery of hundreds of imperiled species such as the endangered Whooping Crane, many wetlands have been drained and tilled into farmlands and now are fairly uncommon within the central Great Plains. Wetland stopover sites provide important forage resources and protection from predators for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) as they migrate 4,000 km across the Great Plains each spring and fall.

Little is currently known about the forage resources acquired by Whooping Cranes during migration due to the expansive migration corridor, sensitivity to human disturbance, small population size, and protected status under the Endangered Species Act. The Crane Trust and its partner organizations aim to fill this knowledge gap via ongoing research activities. During the past couple migration seasons, the Crane Trust has been using high-resolution long-range photography/videography, spotting scopes, and binoculars to documented Whooping Crane behavioral activities via a scan sampling approach. We have obtained nearly 100 hours of video and >1,000 photographs and have been able to identify Whooping Cranes foraging on several different animal taxa including Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish), Anura (frogs), Trionychidae (softshell turtles), and Arthropoda (Arthropods) spp. While wetlands are limited in abundance and quality throughout central Nebraska, our observations indicate wetland landcover classes provide a valuable habitat for Whooping Cranes to forage and rest. The security provided by wetland habitats also enables Whooping Cranes to perform important social interactions necessary for pair-bond maintenance. See our Interim Project Report for more information on this exciting research project currently underway at the Crane Trust, where we strive not only to restore but understand wetland ecosystems.

 

Pictured: Six Whooping Cranes observed in a flooded wetland at Sacramento-Wilcox Wildlife Management Area in south-central Nebraska during the fall 2020 migration (Credit: D. Baasch).