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Whooping Cranes at Branched Oak Lake

I was off Friday ahead of a weekend chock full of checking deer, so I had big plans to hit as many reservoirs as I could to see what rarities the strong northwest winds from earlier in the week blew down.  I started my day early at Branched Oak Lake – which was logical since this water body is the largest around and has the most potential (a Black-headed Gull was discovered here earlier in the week).   My first stop on my loop around the lake was the southeast parking lot at the south end of the dam.  As I pulled in, I noticed a mass of white at the southwest end of the lake.  I knew the odds, this was likely a group of late-migrating American White Pelicans.  However, I was also aware it is Whooping Crane season and the recent weather was precisely the conditions that would blow Whooping Cranes a little east of their traditional migration corridor in central Nebraska.  So I stopped my vehicle and mounted my scope on the window.  Through my scope, I immediately saw a rusty blob in the middle of the white mass.  I knew the rusty blob was indicative of a juvenile Whooping Crane.  A few moments later, I saw a long white neck pop up and I knew for certain I had a distant view of Whooping Cranes.  I headed around the lake to confirm the sighting and found 5 birds total, 4 adults and the rusty juvenile.  I made certain to observe the birds from a distance which would not disturb them.  Below is some video I took of the Whooping Cranes from that safe distance.

The Whooping Cranes were in a spot where they could have been easily spooked by a hunter, birder or anyone that was just out also enjoying the beautiful November morning.  So, I quickly got on the phone and started contacting the appropriate individuals.  Within only about 20 minutes, personnel from NGPC’s Wildlife, Law Enforcement and Parks Divisions were mobilized.  Parks Division personnel quickly restricted access to one parking area.   The response was fantastic and I am very appreciative of everyone’s efforts.  However, at about 9:00 a.m., the Whooping Cranes decided to take off and continue south.

The Branched Oak Lake Whooping Cranes on 13 November 2015
The Branched Oak Lake Whooping Cranes on 13 November 2015

I followed the birds south to about the town of Emerald and then I lost track of them in the big blue sky.  Interesting, we received a report from the public, today, of five Whooping Cranes observed in flight west of Beatrice at about 11:00 a.m.   Almost certainly this lucky observer saw the Branched Oak 5.

Whooping Cranes BOL
The Branched Oak 5 in flight over rural Lancaster County shortly after 9 a.m. I followed these birds south to about the town of Emerald before I lost them in the big blue sky.

Branched Oak Lake is well east of the Whooping Cranes’ traditional migration corridor through central Nebraska.  As I mentioned, though, the strong low pressure system which brought gusty west northwest winds across our area on Wednesday and Thursday is the type of weather system that has blown Whooping Cranes east in the past, including as far east as Iowa and Missouri.   Other easterly Whooping Cranes were reported in Knox (photographed) and Seward County on Friday.  There have also been several reports of Sandhill Cranes in eastern Nebraska the past two days.  The Branched Oak 5 is only the second time Whooping Cranes have been documented in Lancaster County.

Whooping Cranes were certainly not one of the birds I thought I would see on my day off, but it is always special to see this species which only numbers about 300.

Good birding!

Nongame Bird Program

Remember, Whooping Cranes are an Endangered Species protected by state and federal law.  Shooting, harming or harassing Whooping Cranes is a violation of those laws.  If you are ever lucky enough to see Whooping Cranes, please be sure to observe the birds from a distance which does not disturb these critically-imperiled birds.  Thanks!

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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