Inspired by the massive snowstorm that hit NYC last weekend, we bring you the Shoveler.

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The Shoveler has a large flat bill with a special filtering system along its edges (lamellae). This allows for more efficient feeding. It swings its bill side to side through the water filtering out water while munching on plankton. That’s one cool duck.

Hope that common sense will prevail

The annual WCEP partnership meeting is taking place today and tomorrow and thousands of people are on edge. Why? The future of Operation Migration hangs in the balance.

A quick background as we understand it: In a vision document outlining the approach for the next 5 years, the USFW claimed that Whooping Cranes reared under the Ultralight-guided method (UL), used by Operation Migration, aren’t as likely to reproduce as cranes reared with other methods, such as Direct Autumn Release (DAR), in which the birds are captive-raised then released with other Whooping Cranes or Sandhill Cranes in the autumn.  It also claimed the UL method was more expensive and less “authentic”.

It is very smart to periodically reevaluate the efficacy of programs like these. There are a lot of resources at stake.  Many people from all groups in the partnership have invested their time, energy, and love. And, most importantly, the survival of an entire species hangs in the balance.

A few points we believe should be considered as the committee meets:

  1. The data should be considered holistically.  In the USFW vision document, only old data (since 2010) was used to determine program efficacy. That means there is 5 years of newer data that hasn’t been considered. Once that data is incorporated:

    Based on data gathered from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) database , UL crane survivorship is 75% vs. 59% for the Direct Autumn Release (DAR) method, and thereafter, annual adult survival is 92% for UL cranes vs. 84% for DAR cranes. Based on these data, the probability of UL cranes surviving to the earliest confirmed breeding age (three years) is 63% vs. 42% for DAR cranes. Projecting survivorship to 10 years of age, UL cranes are three times as likely to be alive as DAR cranes (35% vs. 12%).

  2. UL could prove to be the best method.  While each method has advantages and drawbacks, when looking at key factors (such as how long the cranes survive and whether they can mate and migrate successfully), UL’s recent numbers are the best so far.
  3. OM’s story is resonating and it is entirely privately funded. Beyond methodology, Operation Migration has managed to bring both money and attention to the cranes and their situation. There is something magical about the ability of humans to push themselves to innovate in order to save another species.

It was OM that drew us to Wisconsin. It was OM folks who introduced us to the WCEP and sent us to Baraboo, WI to visit the the ICF (where we joined as members) and see all the collaborative efforts underway to help cranes.  And it was OM’s unyielding base of support, the aptly named Craniacs, through their passion, dedication, and kindness, that warmed our hearts more than we could have imagined. We left Wisconsin feeling hopeful that the birds had a chance because different groups of people were able to work together to ensure their survival.

And our continued hope is that after taking a hard, fair, holistic look at the data, and really considering the pivotal role OM plays as ambassadors for Whooping Cranes,  the USFWS and WCEP will reach a common sense decision:  Give OM more time to fly.

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A Middle East peace story you haven’t heard

There’s a small piece of land, roughly the size of New Jersey, in the center of the Middle East, just a sliver along the Mediterranean Sea…a land that has seen and, continues to see, more than its fair share of conflict and strife…a land rife with many well known old stories of power struggles, attacks, defenses, mistrust, and blame that are still debated with vigor to this day.

And yet, there is another story of this land that you probably haven’t heard. The land, of course, is Israel and the story is about man vs. nature.

Like most stories from this land, this one begins with a struggle.  In this case, a high stakes struggle for resources. On one side, there are migrants on a long annual voyage to escape barren winters, to travel to warmer climates where they can find food and respite.  These migrants travel thousands of miles to find a safe place to eat and rest before they continue their journey.  If they don’t make the journey, they will starve and die.  These migrants are Common Cranes (aka Eurasian Cranes, or, in Latin, Grus Grus).cranes up closecranes in low flight

On the other side are farmers who work the land and whose entire livelihood depends on growing and harvesting crops every season. Farmers who, over many years, have learned how to grow thriving crops in a difficult environment. Farmers who live and work in the midst of a dizzying sociopolitical situation.  Farmers who have to worry daily about the threat of aerial attacks – not from cranes – but from their human neighbors to the north.

And, like many situations in this region, this one, too, seemed impossible to solve.  The farmers need to grow food on their land.  Every square inch (centimeter if we’re being true to the region) counts.  And the cranes need to eat food, especially food that doesn’t require a lot of energy to obtain.  And yet, in this case, hope, compromise, and collaboration won the day.

In the 1950s, as Israel was starting out as a country, a tract of land in the north, called the Hula Valley, was a swampy wasteland festering with malarial mosquitos.

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Map of Hula Valley and surroundings (source)

Israel began a major public works project to drain the swamps with the hopes that the land could become farmable.  The results of the drainage, however, were abysmal.  Water in the region (that flowed down to major water sources for the whole country) was no longer filtered by the marshland and became polluted with chemicals.  Top soil, no longer anchored by foliage, blew away, making agriculture incredibly difficult.

In the early 1990s, part of the valley was flooded again in a major rehabilitation project.  The restored lake, Lake Hula (in Hebrew, “Agamon Hula”) and wetlands became, once again, a major stopping point for birds migrating from Europe and Asia down to Africa. 

It is then that the battle began.  Just as farmers were able to work the land again, migrating cranes came by the thousands each year and decimated their crops.  Historically, in general, land owners have handled problems like this by shooting or poisoning the avian intruders.

But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, a consortium of groups (Israel Nature & Parks Authority, the JNF, Agamon Hula, the farmers of the Hula Valley, the Upper Galilee Regional Council and government ministries), found an innovative way to work together.  It was aptly named “The Crane Project.”

Each year,  the project moves through 3 stages.  From the Agamon Hula website:

  • Stage I is implemented during the first half of the fall season (the end of September through mid-November) – the cranes are permitted a limited stay in those fields where the summer harvest has been completed.
  • Stage II is implemented during the second half of the season (mid-November through December) – the cranes are then denied foraging throughout the valley’s fields.
  • Stage III is implemented during the winter months- a feeding station is opened where food is spread out across the field according to need, simultaneously protecting the newly seeded crops. Steps are taken to keep away any undesirable birds from the feeding station and an effort is made to reduce the quantity of food at the station to its absolute necessary minimum.”

We visited Agamon Hula during Stage 3.  According to our guide, 8 tons of feed are given to the cranes each day.  Because they have a dependable food source, they don’t spend nearly as much time grazing on the agricultural fields in the valley, thus relieving the farmers’ woes.

Thanks to this ingenious solution, Agamon Hula has become one of the top birding destinations in the world and eco-tourism has taken off, benefiting many people living in the area.

Regardless of how you feel about the human conflicts in Israel and throughout the Middle East, we hope to leave you with the beauty, rapture, and awe that one experiences when witnessing 40,000 cranes together in one place.

The cranes arrive in early afternoon for feeding

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Three cranes flying together are usually two parents with one child.
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About 40,000 cranes (give or take 1,000)

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At dusk, they arrive at the lake to roost

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The calm before the roost.

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The water provides a safe, predator-free zone where the cranes can rest.

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P.S. If you love cranes as much as we do, you’ll enjoy our posts about Whooping Cranes: Us Saving Them Saving Us and Operation Migration: Behind the Scenes.