Wood Buffalo’s Whooping Crane Aerial Survey

by Sharon Irwin, Resource Management Officer, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada

Since the discovery of nesting Whooping Cranes in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and WBNP have conducted aerial surveys to monitor the population. Aerial survey techniques involves flying a combination of circular flights and transects over known nesting territories and similar looking marshes likely to contain breeding Whooping Cranes. These aerial surveys account for nearly 100% of the breeding Whooping Cranes each year.

In August 2014 CWS staff were unavailable to lead the fledgling survey so I became the Survey Lead and Navigator. The pilot, Mark Rayner, WBNP staff Queenie Gray, Jane Peterson, Amy Lusk and I spent 4 days flying over the Wood Buffalo nesting area in an attempt to locate the whoopers and their chicks.

Eurocopter EC120 Colibri used during Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane survey. L-R: Queenie Gray, Amy Lusk, Sharon Irwin and pilot Mark Rayner.

Eurocopter EC120 Colibri used during Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane survey. L-R: Queenie Gray, Amy Lusk, Sharon Irwin and pilot Mark Rayner.

Breeding pair surveys are done in mid to late May over 4-5 days with a crew of 2-3 made up of Parks Canada staff and Canadian Wildlife Service biologists.  Breeding pairs normally use the same territory each year to build their nest and raise their chicks. Knowing where the cranes nest helps make locating the adults and juveniles a bit more successful.

GPS connected to a laptop computer with a mapping program called ArcPad.

GPS connected to a laptop computer with a mapping program called ArcPad.

A Eurocopter EC120 Colibri has been the preferred aircraft for the last couple of years.  It has an enclosed tail rotor which makes it quieter than other helicopters of its size. The helicopter flies at an altitude of about 1,000 to 1,200 feet above ground level (AGL).  The person in the front seat next to the pilot is the navigator.  They use a GPS connected to a laptop computer with a mapping program called ArcPad.

The program allows us to have multiple layers showing at any time our map. We usually have the rivers and ponds showing as well as last year’s nesting locations.  The map has an icon to show where we are flying and draws a trail showing where we have been.  Blocks are flown with transects that are one kilometer apart in the areas where Whooping crane nests have been found in the past.  If the team thinks that a pair of Whooping Cranes may have been missed, we go to the location of the nest from previous years and fly a spiral working out from the nest. The other personnel on the helicopter are observers and collect data as a backup on a GPS, another laptop and in a notebook.

Queenie takes GPS points and notes in the backseat of the helicopter.

Queenie takes GPS points and notes in the backseat of the helicopter.

Each evening after the survey the staff spends a few hours sorting out the data and trying to figure out which pairs of Whooping Cranes have and have not been found for an area.  Frequently a return flight is required to go back to an area to find a missing pair. It really depends on the light conditions, on how easy it is to spot a Whooping Crane.  Sometimes we can see them from a couple of kilometers away and other times we just can’t find them.

The fledgling survey is done in between the end of July and mid-August.  Fledglings are birds that have reached an age where they can fly. The technique for this survey is very similar to the breeding pair survey.  The nest locations are known so we can fly right to the nest.  It may be more efficient in areas where the cranes are more spread out to use the spiraling technique to locate the family group.  In areas where the nests are close together, it seems easier to use the transect method.  In some cases we end up using both techniques.  If the Whooping Cranes have not been successful in raising a chick they may still be in their territory or they could be kilometers away.  Unless they are banded birds, it is almost impossible to figure out which nest a pair used.  If a pair does have a chick, they are generally found fairly close to their nest.

Both the Nest Survey and the Fledgling Survey are part of the world-class restoration plan that has made the Whooping Crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. By counting the number of fledgling chicks, Parks Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others gain important insights into the health of the world’s last remaining natural nesting flock that contribute greatly to our ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

A record number of 164 Whooping Cranes were counted incubating their eggs in 82 nests during the annual survey in June 2014.  This number surpasses a previous record of 76 nests in spring 2011.  These endangered birds all nest in and around WBNP, Canada. The mission of the survey was to determine how many chicks had hatched and survived to become fledglings since the nest counts were made in June.

WBNP officials reported that a total of 202 whoopers were counted, including the fledgling and nesting pairs.  The 32 fledglings were found in 30 family groups: 28 families with one chick and two families with two chicks. In addition to the family groups, the surveyors observed 6 groups of three whooping cranes, 43 groups of two, and 6 individual cranes.

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

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Wintering Whooping Crane Update

November 21, 2014

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

What a difference a couple weeks make! On our last update we noted a somewhat delayed migration with only a handful of whooping cranes having made their way to the Texas Coast. Now, it appears that the vast majority of the population has made their way to Texas. Most of the 25 marked whooping cranes we are tracking via GPS leg bands arrived on the wintering grounds by Nov. 14. We have recent reports and observations from all of the traditional wintering areas on and off the Refuge such as the Welder Flats area and San Jose & Matagorda Islands.

Undoubtedly, the unseasonably cool weather that much of the central plains states have experienced over the last couple weeks contributed to the movement of whooping cranes and other waterfowl to southern wintering areas. We plan to start our annual aerial whooping crane abundance survey on December 3. This coincides with the historical peak abundance of whooping cranes on the wintering grounds.

Additionally, we are already receiving reports of whooping cranes using coastal areas that lie beyond the core “traditional” wintering areas, indicative of an expanding population seeking out new habitat and resources. A few of these expansion areas that cranes have been noted this past week include the Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit of Aransas NWR near Indianola, TX (pair) and at The Nature Conservancy managed Mad Island Marsh Preserve near Collegeport, TX (4 adults). It is noteworthy that the whooping crane use of the Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit is directly across Powderhorn Lake from the recent Powderhorn Ranch conservation acquisition, highlighting the importance of acquiring and protecting habitat for the expanding whooping crane population.

We also received a photograph of a single whooper using a freshwater wetland at Padre Island National Seashore on November 18. While occasional whooping crane use at Padre Island has been documented in the historical record, it has been several years since an observation has been noted there.

Whooping Cranes on the Refuge

Whooping Cranes are now being regularly observed from both the Heron Flats observation deck and the Refuge observation tower, so bring your binoculars and come on out to get a first-hand look at North America’s tallest birds along with a wide variety of other wildlife species!.

New Facebook Page for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge!

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge now has an official Facebook page! We’ll be posting updates about whooping cranes and other wildlife observations, management activities, and refuge happenings. “Like” us for timely information!

Texas Whooper Watch

Texas Whooper Watch has done a great job in getting the word out on whooping crane migration to the public this year. Take some time to check out their website.

The public provided several reports of whooping crane migration this season, including a great photo of 8 adult whooping cranes migrating south through Milam County on November 9th. We owe a big thanks to Katherine Bedrich for the report and photo! This type of information helps confirm migration routes, timing and behavior so we better understand what whooping cranes need to continue increasing their numbers. Be sure to report any Texas sightings beyond the known Aransas/Lamar area via email: whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512) 389-TXWW (8999).

Food & Water Abundance:

The photo below taken by a Refuge remote trail camera shows a pair of whooping cranes departing from a recently rehabilitated well site (converted from windmill to solar pump) that provides freshwater to cranes and other wildlife species on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR:

Whooping cranes departing from a recently rehabilitated well site.

Whooping cranes departing from a recently rehabilitated well site.

For more information on the Refuge’s “Water for Wildlife” initiative, see our last whooping crane update.


As we have stated before, weather conditions play a significant role in whooping crane behavior, including migration timing and habitat selection. Weather conditions may also change our Refuge management strategies for whooping cranes, such as providing freshwater from wells during times of drought. If you enjoy tracking local weather conditions, you might check out the south Texas fall weather journal provided by our partners at the National Weather Service. This edition discusses several local weather patterns that have the potential to impact whooping cranes here on the wintering grounds including timing of hurricanes, drought forecasts and tidal changes in local bays.

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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