Aransas Refuge Wintering Whooping Crane Update

by  Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, USFWS

We’ve had exciting news here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: four adult whooping cranes arrived about a month ahead of normal early arrival time! These four birds were first sighted on Friday, September 12 by an area fishing guide and confirmed with photos by Refuge staff on Monday, September 15. Although not unheard of, this early arrival is fairly rare. The average early arrival date for wintering whooping cranes is around the second week of October. We haven’t had any other migration reports as of yet, but as frontal passages become more frequent, migration should begin in earnest.

Fall Migration Behavior:

I often receive questions about timing and speed of migration this time of the year, and will try to summarize what we know about whooping crane migration. We have some information that was collected by the Canadian Wildlife Service during the first whooping crane telemetry study in the early 1980’s. At that time, researchers actually followed a few migrating whooping cranes in a single-engine prop plane to determine migration behavior.

Here is a bulleted summary of some of the findings:

(Kuyt, E. 1992. Aerial radio-tracking of whooping cranes migrating between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 1981-84.)

Whooping cranes do not all migrate simultaneously.

Total migration distance is 2,500 miles.

“Fall migration of yearlings and subadults began after the middle of September, with family groups and some paired adults following in early October.”

“Whooping cranes usually migrated as pairs, family groups or small aggregates of 4-5 subadults.”

Weather conditions were important in determining migration initiation and stopovers.

Typical fall migration took up to 50 days, consisting of a:
…  2-3 day flight from the breeding grounds Wood Buffalo NP to Saskatchewan;
…  1-5 week “staging period” in the Saskatchewan prairie pothole region; and a
…  1 week journey through the US plains states.

During average flying days, under normal weather conditions, flights consisted of:
…  Flights during daylight hours;
…  Average flight distance of 250 miles over 7.5 hrs; and
…  Flights at < 2,000 ft. altitude.

Greatest observed flight behaviors included:
… Flight speed of >62 miles per hour;
… Flight altitude of 6,400 ft.; and
… Daily flight distance > 500 miles.

As the whooping crane population continues to grow, we expect to see a wider range of behaviors than we have observed in the past. Keep in mind when the study referenced above was conducted, there were only about 75 whooping cranes in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population and now there are over 300. A larger population will exhibit a greater variation in behaviors, which will help the species continue to recover (i.e. individuals seeking out new habitats, etc.).

Texas Whooper Watch

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).

Habitat at the Refuge:

Freshwater ponds on the Refuge, while still not at the “normal” level, have at least some water available as compared to last year. We are currently working to rehabilitate one freshwater well and drill a new freshwater well on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR to provide drinking water for whooping cranes and other wildlife species. We owe a big thanks to the San Antonio Bay Partnership for taking the lead on administering and funding this important project. We hope to provide some pictures of wildlife using these freshwater sites in the near future, so stay tuned!

Precipitation/Salinity:

The Refuge has received slightly more than 5” of rain from July through today. We expect to see more rain this week, which is greatly needed considering the continued drought conditions. A large rainfall event would help to fill and maintain our freshwater wetlands and freshen up the marshes used by whooping cranes. Salinity levels in San Antonio Bay are currently around 29 parts per thousand, which is reflective of the continued drought conditions and limited freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe/San Antonio River basin.

Two of four whooping cranes that made early migration to Aransas Refuge. Arrivaled  9/15/14 Photo by Laura Bonneau/USFWS

Two of four whooping cranes that made early migration to Aransas Refuge. Arrivaled 9/15/14
Photo by Laura Bonneau/USFWS

***** 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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Whooping cranes make early surprise arrival on Aransas Refuge

Four adult whooping cranes made an early surprise arrival on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last week. Normally, the whoopers do not begin arriving on the refuge until October. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator wrote Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW): “As you noted on the FOTWW page, we did confirm the presence of 4 adult whooping cranes on Aransas NWR yesterday afternoon. Same general location that was noted by the fishing guide, so it is likely the same individuals.”Four whoopers made early surprise arrival on Aransas NWR.

Four whoopers made early surprise arrival on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.

The first report about the whooper’s arrival was made by a local fishing guide.  The guide had observed the birds at Sundown Bay in Aransas Refuge on  (September 11 ).

When the whoopers arrival was first disclosed last week, local birders and Aransas personnel were skeptical. Some believed the birds may have been Wood Storks or Sandhill cranes. Both of these birds are often mistaken for whooping cranes. They are similar in size and appearance, especially at a distance. Others wondered if the birds had traveled from the experimental Louisiana “non-migratory” flock. There were numerous questions by serious birders.

Pam Bates, FOTWW Vice President keeps in touch with “whooper watchers” all along the 2,500 mile flyway from Fort Smith, Canada to Aransas, Texas. None of Pam’s contacts had reported seeing whoopers since the northward spring migration. Bates advised, “We haven’t heard of any being sighted along the flyway or in Saskatchewan staging areas. I haven’t heard of any sightings from Regina or Saskatoon.”  So, the early arrival caught everyone by surprise.

The USFWS Southwest Region Facebook page advised “Whooping Cranes have arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Four adults, the first arrivals this wintering season, were spotted by a local fishing guide and confirmed by refuge staff.”

During the past several days, birders have kept busy on social media attempting to determine the truth about the 4 whooping cranes. They succeeded. Now the birders can get some rest after their relentless pursuit of the facts.

by Chester McConnell Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** 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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Whooping cranes and the aurora borealis

Aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, taken at Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta. Canada

Aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, taken at Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta. Canada

Whooping cranes on Wood Buffalo National Park see the “northern lights” often. What do they think about this phenomenon? Well, to be perfectly honest, no human knows. However, it is known that birds have a better vision than mammals. Most bird’s visible spectrum extends to the ultraviolet range, so their vision is far better than humans. Birds have more cones in their eyes than people which aid their vision.

The Northern lights are technically known as “aurora borealis. The Canadian Space Agency tweeted one alert and describes auroras as “natural displays of light in the sky that can be seen with the naked eye.”

“Auroras occur when charged particles (electrons and protons) collide with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing tiny flashes that fill the sky with colorful light. As billions of these tiny flashes occur in sequence, the lights appear to move or ‘dance’” the Space Agency explains in a post.

The so-called solar flare that sparked the display is technically called a coronal mass ejection (CME). The strongest kind, called Class-X, could damage or hinder all electronic devices on earth, this might have been one of those. The solar storm could continue into Sunday and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a geomagnetic storm watch that lasts through the weekend.

If Friends of the Wild Whoopers had to guess, we believe that whooping cranes enjoy the aurora borealis!

by Friends of the Wild Whoopers staff

***** 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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friendsofthewildwhoopers.org