Can A Photograph Save An Endangered Species?


One of my favorite things to do is to seek out the various wildlife around us with my photographer buddy and son, Max. Well, on this trip we decided to make a visit to Paynes Prairie Preserve, in Central Florida. Little did we know it was also turtle chomping day. Yes, it’s what you think, but not part of this post. When my boys were really little and witnessed something like that, I would sing (hilariously off-key and obnoxious) The Circle of Life. Still, not part of this post.

At the end of the hiking trail an elevated platform commands a wide view of the wetlands. To the east we could see wild boar, an eagle sitting on the ground to the south and directly in front of us to the west, these two. Yes, these are Whooping Cranes and their time on this planet is coming to a close. Or is it?

Luckily for them, there are many dedicated people who work tirelessly to help this species continue their existence. And yes, these people also coordinate the “Fly Away Home” event every year, where they assist a young group of Whooping Cranes to learn how to migrate from their birthplace in Wisconsin all the way down to us here in Florida.

It seems every year around October or November, this group of migrating powered-humans and birds really enjoy torturing us wildlife loving/photography people. You see, they don’t fly when it’s not good for the birds. Go figure. Along the course they have many “safe houses” which may be farms or isolated areas where they can put down and wait. Oh, and wait they do. They have stayed in a single location for weeks until the weather and winds are just right, and I get side-tracked with life. So needless to say, I get excited to hear about them heading south each November-ish and then I cringe when I open the paper in late January to see they flew over us yesterday. I’ve only made two of these photo-ops in the past several years. Ugghh!

Photography, light, composition, angles, are all great, but that’s not what the researchers (or better perhaps ‘rescuers’) need. They need data. Data that can translate into positive reproductive behavior that starts to show these birds can begin to grow their population once again.

So toss the pretty pictures aside and let’s zoom in. I must say, as a graphic designer for over 20 years, I would only blow up pixels for an important cause, I think this qualifies. (FYI – if you take an image in Photoshop and upscale, say change a 400 x 400 pixel image to an 800 x 800, you will have quality loss and pixelation). Here I’m looking for that CSI, zoom in until you see the fingerprint, effect. ๐Ÿ™‚

Why you ask? Well, because I’m curious of course. I started flipping through my shots from that day and I wanted to see if I could read the Whooping Cranes ‘numbers’. Little did I know. I zoomed in and couldn’t find numbers, but I did find colored bands. The two birds were different, hmmmm? So I did what any respecting wildlife photographer would do, I Googled it. As it turns out, they just use different combinations of colored bands to identify the Whooping Cranes. With only 407 wild Whooping Cranes on earth remaining, this isn’t too complicated to achieve.

Me being who I am, couldn’t stop there. I began digging for these two birds. I found rosters of the past several years released birds, but not these two. Well, obviously someone somewhere knows about them I thought. After all, I doubt they were born with those cool colored bands and radio transmitters. I came across a website to report sightings of Whooping Cranes. OK, I gave that a whirl.


I got an email back. Before reading it, I figured it would be like,ย “Gee thanks for telling us. You’re like the 45,000th person to tell us about these two birds. Get over yourself.” ๐Ÿ™‚ Instead, I received this nice informative letter:

Hi Kent,

My name is Eva Szyszkoski and I work for the International Crane Foundation as part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnershipโ€™s Monitoring and Management Team.ย  We are responsible for monitoring the Whooping Cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP).ย  We received your report of the two Whooping Cranes you reported at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

Thank you for your report!ย  We are anxious to see what happens with these two cranes.ย  One is part of the EMP (#19-05), and the other (the male, ID #1343) is from the Florida Non-Migratory Population (NMP).ย  #19-05 was previously paired with a male from the EMP and had nested with him multiple years up on their breeding grounds in Wisconsin.ย  This winter however, she split from him and has been hanging around this NMP maleโ€ฆwe are very curious to see what she will do….if the southerly winds will urge her to migrate as she has been doing since 2005, or if the male will woo her into staying in Florida.ย  We have never had such a strong interaction between a migratory and a non-migratory bird in the past. As of 28 March, they were still together at this location.

Feel free to let me know if you have any questions, and if you happen to see them again, please let us know!


Eva Szyszkoski
International Crane Foundation
WCEP Tracking Field Manager

Wow, how cool it that? A long distant endangered love triangle with drama left to unfold. Hey, whatever makes new chicks at this point, right?

So to sum up, the answer is probably ‘no’, a single photograph most likely can’t save an endangered species. Can it, and many others like it, contribute to the possible re-establishment of this species? Perhaps many images over time can help to show patterns and behaviors that may aid and guide researchers in a direction that helps accelerate the Whooping Crane’s recovery.

Who knows what tomorrow brings? However, in a small way it feels pretty cool that Max and I got to see these two interacting and playing out their existence right in front of us, in the here and now.