Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 15, 2016

Wintering Whooping Crane Update

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Whooping crane at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.

Whooping crane family at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.

We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, flying nearly six surveys. Unfortunately, we were plagued with poor flying conditions throughout the survey period. Of the nine days we had pilots and planes available, only five days (Dec. 9, 10, 11, 13, 14) offered safe enough conditions to fly. Of those five days, only two days (Dec. 9 and 13) had good flying weather most of the day, allowing for complete surveys. Fog, rain, low ceilings and high winds all contributed to poor flying conditions. Fortunately, we had two pilots and planes from our Migratory Birds program and four observers available, allowing us to fly more than one survey a day.

Prep for Whooping Crane survey

Aransas NWR biologist Diana Iriarte and Migratory Birds Program pilot biologist Terry Liddick preparing for the first whooping crane survey of the season

Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our Migratory Birds program, served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cessna 206. This year Phil Thorpe also served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wheeled Kodiak. Observers were Wade Harrell, Jena Moon (Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist), Doug Head(Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist) and Stephen LeJeune (Chenier Plains Refuge Complex Fire Program). Doug Head (Refuge Inventory and Management biologist) served as survey coordinator.

Whooping Crane abundance survey results to be released in a few months

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:
We observed whooping cranes using four units of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton and Lamar) and 3 Texas coastal counties (Aransas, Calhoun and Matagorda).

  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in good condition with adequate freshwater resources. Northern portions of the primary survey area (Welder Flats, Matagorda Island Central) appeared to have much more standing freshwater than southern portions of the primary survey area (Blackjack, Lamar-Tatton), presumably due to higher rainfall totals over the last couple months. Coastal marshes had higher than normal water levels due to high tides in the early part of the survey; however tides fell to normal levels this week.
  • We observed significant amounts of water hyacinth, an invasive freshwater plant, floating in San Antonio Bay, presumably having been flushed out of the Guadalupe River after the last flood event in November. Rainfall in November and December has provided positive freshwater inflows into local estuaries.
  • This year we did not have as many large group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in our primary survey blocks, so it is possible that many of the subadult groups we observed in the past few years have successfully paired.We observed at least one family group that included two juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • Due to poor flying conditions, most of our secondary areas did not get surveyed, but we did have one survey over the Mad Island and Matagorda Peninsula secondary areas. The Mad Island secondary survey area had one family group and two additional adult whooping cranes detected.
  • A family group of whooping cranes was reported in a rice field near Garwood, TX on December 8th. This area has had whooping crane use the last several years and is well outside (north) of our survey area.
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well, including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands, agricultural fields and open-water bay edges.

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to view whooping cranes in publically accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough. We consistently observed a family group of whooping crane in the Mustang Lake salt marsh in front of the observation tower, so you have an excellent opportunity to view whooping crane behavior with a juvenile in tow in their natural habitat.

Whooping Crane abundance survey a collective effort

I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Joe Saenz, Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort; Doug Head, Refuge Inventory & Monitoring biologist as survey coordinator; Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and dispatch; and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.

We will be flying some additional surveys in February in order to complete our survey of secondary areas and train new observers.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:
No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter; however, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack
Unit, Tatton Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

Current refuge conditions

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:
November precipitation: 2.57” @ Aransas HQ

December precipitation (as of 12/15): 2.62” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 13 parts per thousand

 

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

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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Farmer files federal lawsuit to prevent wind farm from starting, to protect Whooping Cranes

Farmer files federal lawsuit to prevent recently completed Pratt area wind farm from starting, to protect Whooping Cranes

wind farm

Wind farm project area

PRATT – A Pratt County farmer has filed a suit in federal court seeking to prevent a new wind farm in Pratt County from starting up because of the risk he believes it poses to Whooping Cranes.

Edwin Petrowsky, a former member of the Pratt County Zoning Commission, filed the suit Nov. 23 seeking temporary and permanent injunctions against NextEra Energy Resources.

Petrowsky contends the Ninnescah Wind Farm, which consists of 121 wind generators in the southeast quadrant of the county, is in the flyway of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane, which is an endangered species. The wind farm is expected to go online next week.

At last count, there was only an estimated 329 wild Aransas-Wood cranes in North America.

Petrowsky charges that NextEra is aware of the danger the project is creating, yet has failed to obtain an “incidental taking permit” that would allow the incidental killing of some birds under the Endangered Species Act.

NextEra spokesperson Steve Stengel said that the company has worked with state and federal authorities “all throughout development of the project” and that the siting of the turbines “has taken into account migratory flyways.”

“Whooping Cranes generally fly higher than the heights of the turbines,” Stengel said. “But, in working with the agencies, we have agreed to ongoing bird monitoring at the site.”

According to an earlier story in the Pratt Tribune, the company has agreed to bird and bat monitoring during its first year of operation, “to track mortality rates.” The farm is also in an area with a high number of bat hibernation sites.

Parts of the wind farm, which will generate 200 megawatts of electricity that Westar Energy is under a 20-year contract to purchase, are within 35 to 40 miles of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms, both designated as critical habitat for the whooping crane. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, another designated habitat, is also nearby.

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

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

wind farm

friendsofthewildwhoopers.org