Travels with George: South Carolina 2014

Each rectangular one-half acre of wetland vegetation surrounded by deeper water is called a “task” and represents a former section of a rice field. Prior to the Civil War the ACE Basin was a major rice production area. Today, many of these wetlands are managed for waterfowl hunting of migratory ducks and the breeding of mottled ducks, white ibis, wood storks, herons, egrets, rails, eagles, osprey and others.

By Dr. George Archibald, ICF Co-founder & Senior Conservationist

The ACE Basin encompasses 209,000 acres of wetlands where the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers join in western South Carolina – the largest undeveloped estuary along the Atlantic Coast of the United Sates. Within this complex, 134,000 acres are protected by both public and private stakeholders. These owners, united in conservation, have joined together to form the ACE Basin Task Force. One of the Task Force’s members is the ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge (11,815 acres), another is its neighbor, the Nemours Wildlife Foundation (10,000 acres). This huge and incredible complex of wetlands is special to me, because some of the eastern migratory population of reintroduced Whooping Cranes spends time here (see side bar for a history of this project).

A 2003 male (10-03) and a 2006 female (W1-06) Whooping Crane that nest at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin each spring are spending this winter at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation in the ACE Basin of South Carolina.

On January 21 and 22, 2014, I had the privilege of viewing a pair of Whooping Cranes that is wintering in the ACE Basin on the property of the Nemours Wildlife Foundation. The cranes were feeding in ankle-deep water, sharing it with coots, blue-winged teal and white ibis. The male of this pair was raised in captivity at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland and was released in 2003; the female was the first chick successfully raised to migration age in this re-established population. The cranes glistened in the sunshine. They were magnificent.

The Nemours Wildlife Foundation was created in 1995 as a non-profit organization by the late Eugene duPont. The Foundation “honors the legacy of Eugene duPont, III, and his family through excellence in land stewardship, education and discovery of the knowledge needed to manage, sustain, and restore wildlife populations and their habitats, and improve our quality of life.” Dr. Ernie Wiggers, Director of the Nemours Wildlife Foundation, gave me a tour of the wetlands, and Mike McShane, son-in-law of Mr. DuPont, introduced me to key individuals in the local conservation community. Ernie has been in touch with crane researchers since the cranes first appeared at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation in 2004. In 2012, in a huge tent placed under enormous and moss-decorated live oak trees, I was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Foundation’s members. Of course, I told the story of the Whooping Cranes.

We are thrilled that the Nemours Wildlife Foundation not only provides a safe winter home for Whooping Cranes, but has also assumed a leadership role in raising support for a comparative study of the major areas in the Southeast that Whooping Cranes have selected as their winter home. Hillary Thompson, an intern for two years in the Field Ecology Department at ICF, will be starting a graduate program at Clemson University in South Carolina, to focus on this research.

ICF and I wish to sincerely thank the Nemours Wildlife Foundation for their support. Some of the reintroduced Whooping Cranes in the Southeast are choosing the magnificent wetlands of the Nemours Wildlife Foundation and adjacent lands for a winter home. Once we understand better what motivates the birds’ habitat choices in the ACE Basin and across their new southeastern range, we can do a better job of securing the cranes’ winter home for the future. Who knows, one day perhaps the ACE Basin will be as important to Whooping Cranes in the Southeast as is the Texas Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home for the central Whooping Crane population.

Whooping Cranes Return to the Eastern United States

In 1998, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, a group of crane biologists and officials from the United States and Canada, chose Wisconsin as the breeding area for a new, experimental flock of migratory Whooping Cranes. It was hoped that captive-reared cranes could be led by ultra-light aircraft to a selected wintering location in the southeastern United States. To select a destination, 28 sites were evaluated. Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on the west coast of Florida was selected because of similarities to the Aransas NWR across the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, where the Whooping Cranes from the original wild flock continue to winter. Eventually a second destination for the cranes was added, St. Mark’s NWR along the Gulf Coast on the Florida Panhandle. Because the Central Flyway Whooping Cranes consistently winter at the Aransas NWR, it was predicted that the ultra-light led cranes would winter at the chosen sites in Florida – where they not only had been led, but also fed and penned at night throughout their first winter.

This was not to be. Although low numbers of cranes returned in the subsequent winters for brief periods to the selected wildlife refuges in Florida, the birds scattered widely. The cranes have preferred fresh water wetlands at inland sites stretching across a huge area from southern Indiana to northwest Florida (see Travels with George: Florida 2014) and from Alabama to South Carolina. They have used both protected areas, such as Goose Lake State Wildlife Area in Indiana, Hiawassee State Wildlife Area in Tennessee, Wheeler NWR in Alabama, and the ACE Basin NWR in South Carolina, but also private lands, where there is more risk from human disturbance, including illegal shootings, which have been a significant problem for these reintroduced cranes (to learn more, see Whooping Cranes Need Your Voice).

By the Numbers

Between 2001-2013, 179 cranes have been led south from Wisconsin behind ultra-light aircraft. Between 2005 and 2013, 67 additional young cranes have been released with older cranes in Wisconsin and have migrated with minimal interaction with humans. Since the first wild-hatched Whooping Crane chick fledged in this population in 2006, six juveniles have migrated south with their parents. And for the first time, in 2013, two of four Whooping Cranes parent-reared in captivity and released in Wisconsin with wild adult cranes, migrated south with these adult cranes. Today, about 104 Whooping Cranes survive in the wild in the eastern migratory population.