Waco Lake Provides Stopover Areas for Migrating Whooping Cranes

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping cranes stopover on Waco Lake

Whooping Cranes from the only wild population on earth have been “stopping over” on Waco Lake in Texas for at least seven years – perhaps longer. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) president Chester McConnell explained that these stopovers are expect to continue and increase. According to scientific studies by United States Geological Survey (USGS), Whooping Cranes have been recorded on the lake during 2011 (fall); 2015 (fall); and 2016 (spring). McConnell believes that it is likely that more Whoopers visited the lake but were not recorded because only about one-third of the cranes in the population had radio-tagged tracking equipment attached to them.

What makes the stopovers on Waco Lake a bit surprising is that it is located within the city limits of Waco in central Texas. This U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) lake is about half way between Dallas/Ft.Worth and Austin. In past years, it has been rare for Whoopers to stopover near population centers with all the noise and traffic. Yet, according to McConnell stopping in populated areas may become more frequent because many traditional stopover habitats have been destroyed due to numerous land developments. It appears that Whooping Cranes may be following the example of an increasing number of wild animals visiting in cities because man is eliminating their natural wild habitats.

Population slowly recovering despite declining habitat

The wild Whooping Crane population is also increasing in numbers which FOTWW believes is wonderful. Man caused these birds to come close to extinction but their population has slowly crawled back during the past 70 years. These wild cranes rear their young in Wood Buffalo National Park in remote northern Canada. Their population has increased from 16 birds in 1943 to 431 in 2017. Fortunate their Canada nesting habitat is currently healthy and secure.

So what is the problem? McConnell explained that: “Mostly, during migration Whooping Cranes “stopover” on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to eat and rest overnight or a few days. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop feed, rest and then continue their journey. Importantly, Whoopers are compatible with other wildlife and briefly share their habitats. Ensuring that sufficient areas with the proper conditions as stopover sites are available is important for the survival of the species. Sensible habitat management practices applied by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.”

Unfortunately the Whooping Crane’s “stopover habitats” in the six state migration corridor (ND, SD, NE, KS, OK and TX) and their winter habitat on Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast is declining. This does not bode well for Whoopers.

FOTWW has developed a program to help protect and manage “stopover habitats” in the six state Whooping Crane migration corridor from North Dakota to the Texas coast. FOTWW began its program by working with military bases located within the corridor. FOTWW contacted each base and visited all that had wildlife programs and wetland habitats. Whooping Crane habitat plans were developed for all suitable bases. Because the bases are federal land, there was no requirement to purchase expensive property.

FOTWW’s program to help protect and manage “stopover habitats”

Following the program on military lands, FOTWW visited Indian Reservations to evaluate their lands for Whooper stopover sites. McConnell revealed that the Reservations had an abundance of quality stopover habitats. Management plans were prepared to help protect existing habitats and to improve others needing management. Again, there was no need to purchase land which should increase the success of management efforts.

Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” are also increasing in importance on COE lakes according to McConnell, He explained that, “Due to numerous land use changes on private lands, many wetlands and ponds that once served as Whooping Crane habitat are being drained and converted to other uses. So the large COE lakes are being used more and more by the cranes.” Because of these problems the COE and FOTWW have joined together and are operating under a Memorandum of Understanding to help solve the problems.

FOTWW is currently making evaluations of Corps lakes to identify (1) areas with good Whooper habitat (2) habitats that need improvements (3) and areas that can be developed into good habitat. McConnell reasons that: “Corps lakes are federally owned and, if we can design projects that do not interfere with the Corps mission, then projects that help endangered Whooping Cranes should be authorized. Land cost are the major expense in many wildlife projects and using federal lands would eliminate that cost.”

Waco Lake assessment

McConnell visited Waco Lake on April 9, 2018 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. Michael Champagne, USACE – Natural Resources Specialist, Fort Worth District made arrangements for the trip and participated in our visit to the lake. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Waco Lake we made a tour of the lake property to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Three Texas Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens joined us for part of the trip and took us in their jet boat to islands in the lake. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

Threats to whooping crane habitats

Today, however Whooping Cranes are facing more threats to their habitats. During their 2,500 mile migration from Canada to Texas they must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Currently about half of the population winters off the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where they are not as safe. Continuous development along the coast is also taking a serious toll on habitat.

Waco Lake
Figure 1. Two islands in Waco Lake located about one-half mile east of Highway 185 are currently excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Vegetation on the islands is low growing during the spring season. If it grows high during summer months it should be clipped to 2 feet or less in height. (Google Earth photo.)

 

Waco Lake
Figure 2. Photo of one end of an island (No. 1) in Waco Lake. Flight paths for Whooping Cranes approaching the island are available from all directions. No thick bushes or trees are in or near the landing site. There is extensive horizontal visibility from the roost site so predators can be readily detected. This is excellent Whooping Crane stopover habitat.
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Wild whooping cranes – wintering in Texas

Slideshow – Wild whooping cranes wintering in Texas

We would like to thank one of our biggest supporters and cheerleaders, Charles Hardin and his lovely wife, Jen for making and sharing this lovely slideshow with Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW). As some of you who know Charles, he and Jen have enjoyed some great winters near Lamar and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge while our beloved whoopers are spending their winters there. While going through some photos from past winters, Charles decided to make FOTWW a lovely slideshow to share with everyone, hoping that it brings awareness to FOTWW and the only natural remaining wild flock of whooping cranes.

We hope you enjoy Charles’ slideshow and we especially hope that you will share it with your friends and social media group members to help spread the word about the wild flock and FOTWW.

Thank you again, Charles and Jen!

***** 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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Whooping Crane images from Wood Buffalo National Park

The Whooping Crane images below, were taken during the recent Whooping Crane Nesting Survey on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP). Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks the good folks at Wood Buffalo National Park for sending these fantastic photos to us so we could share with you. Be sure to click on each photo to enjoy and take in the beauty of WBNP’s nesting grounds at full size.
whooping crane images
Adult whooping crane incubating eggs. © Photo by Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service – L. Parker Click photo to enlarge.
Whooping crane images
Nesting pair of whooping cranes and nest © Photo by Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service – L. Parker Click photo to enlarge.
whooping crane images
Nesting pair of whooping cranes and nest with two eggs. © Photo by Parks Canada and Canadian Wildlife Service – L. Parker Click photo to enlarge.

***** 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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Whooping Crane Nest Survey on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

A total of 86 Whooping Crane nests were located during the 2018 nesting survey on Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), Canada according to Rhona Kindopp, Manager of Resource Conservation, Parks Canada.

Whooping crane nest survey results

Kindopp explained: “We have a preliminary count of 86 nests, the second highest number ever recorded. Last year we set a record with 98 nests. We don’t count recently hatched chicks as part of this survey because we do a survey of fledged chicks each August. We are encouraged by the significant number of nests established this year. The previous record was 98 in 2017 and the before that it was 82 in 2014. We are seeing a large, relatively stable number of nests over the past few years, and the variance in the numbers of nests is within the normal range. We believe this bodes well for the ongoing health of the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Whooping Crane flock and we look forward to seeing the results when we count chicks later in the season.”

The next survey will be conducted in September to count the number of juvenile Whooping Cranes that hatched and survived.

WBNP’s central role

Notably, Kindopp pointed out that: “As the last natural whooping crane nesting habitat is under our stewardship, we play a central role in the nesting survey and in the fledgling survey that takes place later in the summer. Sharon Irwin, WBNP Resource Conservation Officer, WBNP Ecologist Lori Parker and John Conkin of the Canadian Wildlife Service took part in the survey, which was carried out May 25-29 for a total of 5 days.

The vast wetlands in northern Wood Buffalo National Park are the whooping cranes’ nesting area. They build their nests alongside the shallow ponds that contain the frogs and insects they feed on throughout the summer. There, the nesting pairs will raise one or occasionally two chicks which must then make the long trip back to Texas in the fall.

Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Conducting the survey

Kindopp described the survey procedure: “The survey is carried out by flying in a helicopter in a grid pattern over last year’s nest locations. If we don’t find a nest on a grid search we then fly to the old nest site and fly ever widening circles around site.  We also have recent locations for satellite banded birds to check.”

“The water levels in the ponds of the nesting area are good and overall habitat conditions look very positive this year. Clearly, the crane have found nesting conditions very favorable. Nesting started a bit later than usual this year because of cold temperatures.” according to Kindopp.

whooping crane
Figure 1. Whooping Crane sitting on nest. Note crane in center of photo. ©Parks Canada / Wood Buffalo National Park.

Due to the remote location of their nesting grounds and its inaccessibility to humans, the cranes are fairly secure while they are in the park. They face more challenges in their migration corridor through Canada and the United States due to habitat loss. We work with conservation agencies in the United States to monitor the progress of the cranes and share data on the state of their habitat.

Whooping crane life

Whooping Cranes live a hurried life during their reproduction period. When the nesting birds (5 years of age and older) leave their winter habitats on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast they seem to be in a rush. Spring migration periods from Aransas to Wood Buffalo are quicker than the fall migrations that travel south. The belief is that the nesters are in a rush to get to their nesting grounds so they can nest and rear their chicks during the short summer period available in their northern range.

Wild Whooping Cranes have now settled down on Wood Buffalo. They arrived there during late April and May after migrating 2,500 miles from Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast. Each nesting pair located their nesting site which is normally in the same general area as past years. Park records show that several pairs have nested in the same areas for 22 consecutive years. Soon after their arrival on their nesting grounds, they build their nest.

Nesting territories for Whooper pairs vary in size but average about 1,500 acres. They guard their territories. Nesting neighbors typically locate their nest at least one-half mile away. Nests are normally constructed in shallow water with vegetation from the local area.

Wild Whooping Cranes nesting information

According to several research reports, eggs are typically laid in late April to mid-May. Normally two eggs are laid but infrequently only one and rarely three have been observed in nests. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid and continues for about 30 days. Since incubation starts when the first egg is laid, the first chick hatched is about two days older than the second hatched. This variance in age is significant and creates problem for the younger chick. It is weaker than the older chick and has difficulty keeping up as the adults move around searching for food. The younger chick often dies due to its weakness. Records indicate that only about 10% to 15% of the second chicks hatched survive. Importantly, the second egg plays an important role in providing insurance that at least one chick survives.

From the time Whoopers begin egg laying until their chicks are a few months old, the family groups remain in their breeding territory. They feed there and don’t move long distances until after their chicks fledge.

Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016 are shown in the graph below.

whooping crane
Figure 2. Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016.
whooping cranes
Figure 3. Sass River – Whooping Crane nesting grounds. Photo by John D. McKinnon
whooping crane
Figure 4. Whooping Crane on nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
Photo by Klaus Nigge

Parks Canada is a recognized leader in conservation. Through its Conservation and Restoration Program, Parks Canada takes actions to preserve national parks and contribute to the recovery of species-at-risk. Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers will publish an update of the ongoing Whooping Crane chick reproduction and related activities soon.

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