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by Dave Yanko

Ever observe a whooping crane in its natural setting?

Those who have are frequently moved by the experience, according to Regina eco-tourism operator Curt Schroeder.

"Many come away feeling 'this is a wonderful thing, and we need to do more for conservation, not just for whooping cranes'," says Schroeder, whose whooping-crane tours are attracting interest from as far afield as Minnesota and Alberta. "It's a symbolism people take with them when they leave -- a heightened sensitivity to conservation."

Viewing is restricted at the whooping crane nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park, located on the boundary of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. And while boat tours are offered at the wintering grounds in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf, there's growing concern about the effects of tourism and commercial shipping in the fragile wetlands.

That makes Saskatchewan, the staging area for the 4,000-kms (2,500-mile) migration, one of the best places in the world to observe the elegant cranes. The environment is stable, the birds are widely dispersed throughout it, and it's accessible while thinly populated. Whooping cranes can linger more than a month here while foraging for the grain that fuels their long trip.

The Canadian Wildlife Service counted 24 fledglings during a mid-August count at the breeding grounds - a good year.
-- courtesy the Canadian Wildlife Service
The Canadian Wildlife Service counted 24 fledglings during a mid-August count at the breeding grounds - a good year.

"Once they leave here, they move on a daily, or every-second-day basis, going south," says Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Brian Johns, Canadian coordinator of the Canada-U.S. whooping crane recovery team.

People interested in observing whooping cranes in the wild can sign up for one of the interpretive tours provided by Schroeder (306-584-9668), or Nature Saskatchewan (306-975-3042). But with a little planning, a dollop of information and a touch of good luck, the whoopers can be found without the service of a guide. Here's what you need to know:

Whoopers don't migrate en masse; they trickle out of their breeding grounds in family units, and in small groups of sub-adults and non-breeders.

Sub-adults are first to leave Wood Buffalo, arriving in Saskatchewan as early as the middle of August.

"These are last year's young," explains Johns, who's based in Saskatoon. "Some years we don't get them until later on in September, and other years (like 1998) they show up in mid August.

"The larger number of birds will start moving down any time after the middle of September. The breeding birds usually start arriving here any time after the first of October."

Johns suspects the southern migration may get underway a week earlier than normal this year. A slightly premature northern migration and a warm Canadian spring effectively place the whoopers a week ahead of schedule.

One of the best sites for spotting sub-adults and non-breeders is Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area, the oldest bird sanctuary in North America, located on the north end of the lake about an hour and a half northwest of Regina (phone 306-836-2022 or 306-836-4461 for directions).

If you'd prefer to try to observe a breeding pair with a fledgling, your best bet is to begin by phoning Johns' Whooping Crane Hotline, at 306-975-5595. Anyone who spots a whooping crane is asked to report it by phoning this number.

The hotline was implemented to keep biologists north and south of the border abreast of the migration, as well as to warn provincial officials of areas where whooping cranes are seen with their sandhill counterparts during sandhill crane hunting season, which runs through September and October. But Johns says he's pleased to offer help to people who simply want to observe or photograph the birds.

Family groups of whooping cranes prefer smaller wetland areas, and Johns says they might choose a different staging area from one year to the next.

Whooping cranes stage in Saskatchewan on their long journey to Texas.
-- courtesy the Canadian Wildlife Service
Whooping cranes stage in Saskatchewan on their long journey to Texas.

However, one particular mating pair is a frequent visitor to the west end of Radisson Lake, about 70 kms northwest of Saskatoon and perhaps three kms west of the Town of Radisson, just off the Yellowhead Highway (No. 16). The tiny lake is visible but unnamed on provincial highway maps.

"That pair are there, almost on an annual basis," says Johns. "Some years they'll just be there by themselves, or with their young. . . . About two years ago, there were about a dozen birds, all within a mile of each other, just northwest of Radisson Lake."

Another fertile area for whooping-crane viewing is Blaine Lake (the lake, not the town of the same name), as well as the area surrounding it. Blaine Lake, actually two bodies of water, is located about an hour north-northwest of Saskatoon.

Saskatoon residents have a very good viewing opportunity right in their own back yard. It's the area south of Highway No. 5 and north of the Yellowhead, and bordered on the east and west by Highway No. 2 and the city.

"It's the area roughly bound by Colonsay, Meacham, St. Denis and Saskatoon," says Johns. "That block quite often has birds. Almost on an annual basis."

Tour operator Schroeder says he's had good luck at Muskiki Lake, about 25 kms north of Meacham.

Whooping cranes typically leave the shallow water where they sleep around sunrise and fly out to a nearby grain field to feed. They may go back and forth during the day. Or they may remain in the water from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then return to fields until sundown.

"Morning and late afternoon is their activity time," says Johns.

Schroeder has a pointer for approaching the birds in a vehicle.

"Often when you stop, that's when they watch. If you drive right past them, they think nothing of it."

"The birds impose that 400-metre distance on you. Get closer and they're likely to fly away."

One last point: If you spot a whooping crane in an area that wasn't mentioned on the Whooping Crane Hotline; give Johns a call and report your finding. You'll be doing the birds a good turn.

Good luck!

For more on whooping cranes, and the international effort to save them, please see Whoopers.

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