The Last 125 Mississippi Sandhill Cranes in the World


SCA’s Henry Woolley on helping USFWS save an endangered bird

This post was written for Open Spaces, the official blog of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s part of a monthly series featuring SCA interns writing about their experiences working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Today, Henry Woolley checks in from the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.

I leave the office at 5:30 in the morning, and drive through the pre-dawn mist to the blind. Once on the refuge, I turn off my headlights so as not to disturb the cranes. The federally endangered Mississippi Sandhill crane nests in ponds and wetlands from early spring through early summer, and I am participating in my first early-morning observation. We need to find as many nests as we can in order to track where cranes are nesting and find out which pairs are successful in creating the new generation. With only around 125 cranes left in the population, the success of each nest is critical.

I silence my cell phone and exit the truck, making sure the door doesn’t slam. The blind overlooks a pond and the adjacent wet pine savanna, ideal crane habitat. Historically, non-migratory Sandhill cranes inhabited much of the Gulf Coast, but loss of habitat due to timber farming and wildfire suppression has mostly confined the Mississippi Sandhill crane to the 19,300 acres of the refuge, where I am currently serving as a Student Conservation Association Wildlife Intern. Crane monitoring has been conducted here since before the refuge was founded in 1975, and is currently led by Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Scott Hereford and Angela Dedrickson.

I climb up into the blind, set up my spotting scope and look at the leg band combination sheet to find the colors on the cranes who have used this pond to nest in the past. I am looking for 434, who was captive-reared and released on the refuge, and his wild-hatched, unbanded mate. Observing them together would indicate they have not yet nested, while observing one without the other would suggest they have a nest nearby. 434 and Unbanded typically nest  early in the season.   If the first nest is destroyed by flooding, predation, or some other unforeseen disaster, the pair will typically renest.

A banded Mississippi Sandhill Crane spotted by a USFWS intern.Note the leg band. Photo by Henry Woolley/USFWS

It’s starting to get light out, so I raise my binoculars and begin to scan the foggy toothache grass and longleaf pine saplings along the pond’s edge. After maybe a minute, I see a flash of red and white through the mist – a crane lying in the grass by the edge of the pond about 50 yards from the blind. Interesting because cranes roost standing up in water. The crane is alert and looking around.   I can’t see a nest because of the dense fog and vegetation, and I can’t identify the crane because it’s lying down. I make a note of the crane’s location and keep scanning.

A nesting Sandhill crane at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. Looks like nesting behavior… Photo: Angela Dedrickson/USFWS

After about five minutes I see another crane about 100 yards south of the reposing crane, slowly walking through the grass and fog. It’s too far, too foggy, and there’s too much vegetation to make an ID, and I lose sight of the crane in the fog. I still don’t know who I’m looking at. I don’t even know if the two cranes I’ve observed are connected.

Ten minutes later, I see an unbanded crane emerge from the fog and tall thick dry grass only about 25 yards from the blind. Based on its location, I believe this is the one I saw walking earlier. Since I am able to confirm it is unbanded, it could mean the crane lying down is 434 on a nest, but I need to make sure so I keep watching.

The crane lies still for almost three hours, not responding to cranes calling in the distance or flying overhead, not budging when a great egret wades close by hunting. I keep watching in hopes of getting an ID or maybe even a glimpse of a nest, while at the same time keeping an eye out for any other crane activity I need to record.

A Mississippi Sandhill Crane standing over its egg in a nest at a USFWS refuge.Check out that egg! (click for a larger image) Photo: Angela Dedrickson/USFWS

Finally, the crane suddenly stands up! I can see the band combination on its leg – it’s 434! He pokes around at something by his feet, turns to face the opposite direction, and sits right back down in the same spot. Even though I still can’t see a nest, this is nesting behavior and enough evidence to positively mark it as an active nest. The crane I saw earlier must have been his unbanded mate, foraging until it’s time for her to take her turn incubating. It’s my first time doing early-morning crane observation and it’s the first observed nest of the season!

The nested family! Squint really hard and you can just make out the chick. (click for larger image) Photo: Angela Dedrickson/USFWS

Three years ago, while working as a wilderness monitor with AmeriCorps in Nevada, I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school for wildlife biology. My undergraduate coursework, however, was in environmental science, meaning that I needed experience conducting wildlife field research before I would be eligible for a graduate assistantship. This opportunity to intern with the Fish and Wildlife Service through the Student Conservation Association and Americorps has allowed me to finally achieve my goal of going to graduate school. This fall I will be starting a Ph.D. program studying Mississippi Sandhill cranes, and that would not have been possible for me without the SCA!