New monitoring methods
Wood Buffalo National Park‘s vast size and iconic wildlife have helped make it one of Canada’s most famous national parks. The lands that comprise the northern third of the park are unique : an endless series of springs and sinkholes, lakes and wetlands, all interconnected through groundwater seepage and flow. Wood Buffalo is known today for providing the habitat for the world’s last wild, migratory flock of whooping cranes— North America’s largest bird.
Whooping Cranes begin their lives in nests built by mating pairs amongst the thousands of ponds that pockmark the flat expanse of the park. A 380-million-year-old limestone bedrock that is crumbling through water and weather erosion underlies these wetlands. When glaciers passed over this vast area in the last ice age, their immense weight scoured these rocks and leveled the landscapes. When the ice age ended, a huge and rapid melt left old river channels, eskers, gravels and erratics on the surface. The rounded surface ponds, commonly referred to as a marl wetland, were left behind amongst these deposited gravels and underneath, chemical erosion amongst the limestone helps form the park’s many sinkholes and caves. These marl wetland habitats and their sheer extent are unique in the world which cover hundreds of square kilometres.
Whooping Cranes choose these ponds to build their nests due to their inaccessibility to predators, relative seclusion from competing bird species, and the availability of insects, amphibians, plants and small fish upon which the cranes depend for survival. In spite of occasional threats such as floods and wildfires, these fortified ponds remain a refuge for which the whooping cranes are well adapted. The potential impact of drying from climate change remains a possible threat in the future, as do issues from habitat fragmentation and urbanization during the long migration from Wood Buffalo to their wintering home in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Texas.
Whooping Cranes are perhaps best known as the symbol of international conservation. In historical references, some European travellers recall seeing legendary white birds by the hundreds. As settlers spread and converted the Great Plains and coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico into farmlands and cities, whooping crane habitat began to shrink. For many years, unrestricted hunting for both meat and trophy purposes drove cranes to the brink of extinction and by the early 1960s, all migratory populations of whooping cranes had become extinct—save for the one that travelled from Wood Buffalo to Aransas each year.
Through a determined effort by both Canadian and American governments and other conservation partners, the number of whooping cranes climbed from fewer than 50 in the early 1960s to more than 500 today. Additional efforts in the United States established new populations, which are non-migratory, to help secure the future of this species. The story of the collapse and the re-emergence of the whooping crane is now well understood by conservation practitioners and serves as one example of contributing to bring an endangered species back from the brink.
At the frontlines of whooping crane monitoring in the wetlands of Wood Buffalo, biologists and conservation specialists of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and Parks Canada (PC) assess factors that could impact the cranes and their habitat, like the quality of water and the encroachment of potential threats. They also conduct a series of monitoring flights in May and July each year, checking on known nesting locations, keeping a lookout for new nests and counting chicks. It was by chance that the habitat of whooping cranes was protected in the expanses of Wood Buffalo, whose boundaries were established almost one hundred years ago. Until the mid 1950s, when conservationists documented for the first time the presence of the Whooping cranes nesting in the park, their nesting site was a mystery. By a stroke of good fortune, their last refuge was located in this protected place, helping this last wild population survive.
In recent years, the wild population is doing well, with increases in numbers by as much as 4 per cent per year. In 2019, during the last aerial survey, more than 90 nests were counted, including 11 outside of the park. As the population expands, the challenge of counting and protecting them also increases.
The challenges of monitoring the cranes were exacerbated in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Border closures in the NWT and Canada and newer, stricter protocols while sharing confined space in helicopters temporarily set traditional wildlife monitoring methods back. And with stricter measures in place now, and possibly in the future, fieldwork will have to be versatile to both in-person and non-personal methods. As of 2018, new technologies have emerged that allow us to keep an eye on the cranes, even if the human eye can’t be everywhere all the time.
Alternative Monitoring Methods
CWS and PC have already been thinking about the long-term sustainability of traditional whooping crane monitoring methods as the population grows and habitat expands. One of the most likely methods to augment the existing monitoring programs for whooping cranes is aerial and satellite photography. This method was piloted by Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first woman in space, and a lifelong conservationist with a particular interest in whooping cranes. Dr. Bondar and her team at the Roberta Bondar Foundation are using satellite imagery, aerial and ground photography as part of a project to document several of the world’s most endangered avian species.
The whooping cranes of Wood Buffalo National Park is the first population that Dr. Bondar and the Roberta Bondar Foundation are photographing for their Space for Birds project. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) acquire images according to geographic coordinates that Dr. Bondar as Principal Investigator, provides NASA. This covers staging and stop-over areas in the Canadian Prairies and American Midwest, and over the Texas Gulf of Mexico coast where the cranes overwinter.
As the nesting area of the whooping cranes in Wood Buffalo National Park is north of the orbit of the ISS, satellite images provide the space perspective of the more northerly areas of the migration corridor. Satellites also provide information on habitat, especially on water levels and wildfires. This information is in real time and also can be retrieved historically for comparison. With improved resolution of the sensors of these satellites, small white dots that are Whooping Cranes could be identified. This is an exciting new area of research into monitoring technologies that will aid conservation efforts.
On helicopter survey flights with PC and the CWS, the Foundation recorded high resolution still images and videos of Whooping Crane pairs with and without their young, and later over Saskatchewan, the US Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico coast as the cranes migrated. Groundwork includes Dr. Bondar’s high resolution video and still images taken on land and by boat of Whooping Crane behaviour and habitat. These three perspectives (space, aerial, ground) of the Whooping Crane migration corridor underscore the vast distances and required habitats that the wild needs. Only through international partnerships amongst governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can Whooping Cranes survive the challenges of climate change and habitat loss.
Another technique currently being considered is the application of crowdsourcing: recruiting virtual volunteers from around the world to sift through thousands of satellite images of wetlands in the search for Whooping cranes on their nests—again, usually standing out as a lone white dot in the midst of the rest of the boreal landscape. The results would be used to augment traditional fieldwork practices and help in covering large land scapes more efficiently. As the Whooping Crane populations continue to recover, and their home range in the NWT continues to expand, aerial surveillance in aircraft becomes more challenging. It’s possible that citizen science enthusiasts could help biologists in their monitoring efforts, while becoming more aware of the importance of Whooping cranes themselves. Work on determining if this technique is practical is currently being tested.
As new technologies and techniques emerge, they offer exciting possibilities for enhanced protection for Whooping cranes and other migratory species at risk. In a place as vast as Wood Buffalo the emergence of these new monitoring methods offer an opportunity to improve our stewardship of whooping cranes and their critical habitat.
Contributed by the Wood Buffalo National Park-Parks Canada and The Roberta Bondar Foundation.
Wood Buffalo National Park Facebook: @ParksCanadaNWT
Twitter: @RBondarFdn @RobertaBondar @Space_for_Birds