From Texas to Fort Smith, conservation photographer documents whooping crane migration

Mike Forsberg, a Nebraska conservation photographer, has been travelling the “whooper highway” for the last month following the migration path of the whooping cranes. His photographs will be used in a project to highlight the importance of conservation.

The 5,084 km trip started in Aransas, Texas, where the cranes spend the winter months

Mike Forsberg flying over northern Alberta, making his way along the whooping crane migration path to Wood Buffalo National Park in Fort Smith. (Submitted by Chris Boyer/

Mike Forsberg, a Nebraska conservation photographer, has been travelling the "whooper highway" for the last month following the migration path of the whooping cranes, an endangered species since 1970.

Forsberg and his three-man team are documenting the changes on the crane's migration path, and the people who encounter them along the way, to show the importance of conserving their habitat. 

To do this, the team has been setting up time-lapse cameras along the entire migration corridor. Each camera, approximately 12 in total, will take a photo every half hour for the next year. 

Adult whooping cranes and a fledgling in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2014. (Jane Peterson/Parks Canada/Wood Buffalo National Park)

The whooping crane is often viewed as a conservation success. On the brink of extinction in the 1940s and '50s, a small flock of whooping cranes has been growing since the 1970s, thanks in part to an international effort. By 2018, the flock included an estimated 508 birds.

The cranes spend the winter months along the Texas coast at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and nest in the wetlands of Wood Buffalo National Park during the summer months.

The first camera was placed in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the last in Wood Buffalo.

"You get to see the change of the seasons, you get to see the change of the weather," said Forsberg. "You can make the land come alive in a way that it's a living breathing thing." 

Forsberg, pilot Chris Boyer from Montana, and ground operations co-ordinator Jeff Dale — also from Nebraska — left Texas by ground and air on April 6 and arrived in Fort Smith, N.W.T., on April 25. 

Making the same travel decisions as the cranes

Their plane has also been outfitted with GoPro cameras, one on each wing, one on the tail, and one in the cockpit.

The team only moved on to the next location when all the external conditions allowed it, which, incidentally, involved making the same decisions the cranes make during their travels.

Forsberg plans to write a book on the experience, which will include photos and a collection of voices from people he's met along the way. The research they collect will be used to create educational resources, and eventually, he hopes, a documentary. 

Learning from local, Indigenous knowledge

While in Fort Smith, Forsberg met with local whooping crane expert Ronnie Schaefer, to gather information on the local nesting habitat and behaviours from a traditional knowledge perspective. 

Schaefer was able to share what he's learned from observation and from oral history about the crane's northern diet of snails, frogs, and snakes, something which Forsberg said had previously been unknown by southern biologists.

Schaefer is hopeful that this project will highlight the importance of the whooping cranes in the area.

"We have a no-trespassing bylaw but it's not enforced," said Schaefer.

He also said the Salt River First Nation, where some of the cranes nest, had plans to employ a conservation officer to monitor the area but that hasn't happened either.

A sign in Wood Buffalo National Park warns the public about the whooping crane's sensitive nesting habitat. (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

Schaefer is mostly concerned with the traffic of campers in the nesting zone during the May and August long weekends. He previously put up signs to educate people about the endangered species in the area but finds they are mostly used for target practice. 

"It's an opportunity to share with people how amazing these creatures are," said Forsberg. "If you can get [people] to appreciate them, then maybe they can value them enough to care." 

Forsberg has also been working closely with Lori Parker, an ecologist at Wood Buffalo National Park. In addition to assisting on the recent trip, Parker will also help coordinate Forsberg's return to the area in late May. 

10 days waiting in a blind 

In that final stage of the project Forsberg is planning to photograph a whooping crane nest. He will set up in a blind for 10 days, without leaving, to minimize the impact on the crane's habitat and other wildlife. 

He's also hoping to capture the nesting grounds with Schaefer, sharing the importance of getting the oral history of the cranes from the Indigenous perspective. 

While he's in the area, Forsberg will lead a wildlife photography workshop with Wood Buffalo National Park.

Forsberg hopes to unveil the project around October 2023, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the endangered species act and the 50th anniversary of the International Crane Foundation.

He said following the cranes in their 320 km wide migration corridor was a powerful experience: seeing the landscape change and connecting it with the wildlife and the people along the way

"It's a significant time to tell the story of these birds," said Forsberg. "It's the last truly wild migrating flock of birds. If this flock didn't exist we wouldn't have whooping cranes on the planet anymore."