Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 24, 2019

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
A newly arrived family group on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge Photo by Kevin Sims © 2017

It seemed like fall would never arrive after a long, hot summer, but cooler, shorter days have finally made an appearance with many species of migrants now frequenting the friendly skies!  Whooping Crane migration is in full swing and the first pair of our winter residents was reported by photographer John Humbert in the Seadrift area on October 9.  Regular U.S. migration hotspots like Quivira NWR in Kansas have already reported their first whooping cranes of the season as well. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look at Texas Whooper Watch:  Whooping Crane Look-Alikes.

It was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed South on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.

The Whooping Crane migration from WBNP to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to 50 days to complete. It is common for whooping cranes to spend a long period of time in Saskatchewan this time of year, “staging” for fall migration by foraging on abundant agricultural waste grains. Our partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service are actively monitoring whooping cranes in Saskatchewan now and have reported seeing several of our marked birds.  As of October 23, 14 marked birds were still north of the border in fall staging areas of Central Saskatchewan, one of them was in North Dakota, one was in South Dakota, one was in Kansas, one was in Oklahoma, and one was on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR.  There is a slight chance that some marked cranes are still on their breeding grounds in WBNP, but the lack of cellular towers make them untrackable until they begin to head south.

Report Texas Migration Sightings

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch.

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance

You might remember last fall and winter was a record wet period and we seem to be headed the other direction this year. This summer and fall was quite dry, with September, typically one of our wettest months of the year, only producing 2.94” of rain at Aransas NWR (2.94” of rain). Thus, much of the standing water that we saw across the Refuge last winter is now gone and freshwater wetlands are shrinking somewhat. Since June, we have recorded 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regards to what the future holds.

Habitat Management at Aransas:

We were able to burn a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes.  We also burned an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units.  By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access. Summer burns are often provide more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, thus are an important tool for us at Aransas NWR.

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More Stopover Habitat for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes

August 6, 2019
by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

“Stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes received another large boost this week. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) and their Corps of Engineers (COE) partners recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional COE lakes. During the past two years there has been remarkable increasing awareness and interest about Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” needs throughout the seven state mid-continent migration corridor. FOTWW President Chester McConnell is thrilled and remarked, “It’s about time”.

McConnell explains that, “Habitat is the most important need of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane population. It is the only remaining wild, self-sustaining Whooping Crane population on planet Earth. The Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Cranes can take care of themselves with two exceptions. They need man to help protect their habitat and for people not to shoot them.” So FOTWW is dedicated to protecting and managing existing and potential “stopover habitat” where we can. Whoopers need many areas to stop, rest and feed during their two annual 2,500 mile migrations from Canada to the Texas coast.

During past 60 years, most interest in Whooping Crane habitat has focused on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Aransas Refuge is the wintering habitat and Wood Buffalo is the nesting habitat for the cranes. This major focus on Aransas and Wood Buffalo habitats has been a wise management decision but over time the need for morel focus is needed on “stopover habitats”. In the past, most of the “stopover habitats” have been on small farm ponds and wetlands. Unfortunately for Whooping Cranes and many other wildlife species, these habitats have been and are being lost at an alarming rate due to changing land uses including larger agriculture fields and various kinds of development.

Unfortunately, relatively little interest has focused on “stopover habitat” where the Whoopers stop to rest and feed every night during migration. These stopover locations are scattered all along the 2,500 mile long migration corridor between Aransas Refuge and Wood Buffalo. Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist stresses that “stopover habitats” are absolutely necessary and the Whooping Crane population could not exist without these areas. Importantly, Whooping Cranes spend 8 to 10 weeks migrating from their Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge winter habitat. They cannot fly the total 2,500 mile distance without stopping to feed and rest. 15 to 30 times. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats. McConnell compared a human automobile trip of about 3,000 mile from New York to California. The driver would have to stop at three or four motels to rest and about 12 restaurants for meals. So it is for Whooping Crane needs for “stopover habitats”.

Expanding WC population

FOTWW is often asked, what is the organization doing for Whooping Cranes? Our answer is that we are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. It’s happening on COE lakes, Indian Reservations and military bases throughout the migration corridor. We recently completed assessments on 27 lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

Importance of Habitat for Whooping Cranes

FOTWW has very little funding assistance and decided to work with government agencies and Indian tribes who own land distributed all along the migration corridor from North Dakota to Texas. Land is the most expensive item and the Corps, military and Indian tribes already own thousands of acres. McConnell met with these land owners and explained the habitat needs of Whooping Cranes and how they could contribute without interfering with their normal missions. Fortunately, there was exceptional support and FOTWW has been working on the mission for over three years.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell recently visited four more COE lakes in Texas to evaluate potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes: Jim Chapman Lake, Ray Roberts Lake, Lewisville Lake and Hords Creek Lake. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our visit.

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable habitat evaluation official visit.

The following photos and descriptions will assist readers to understand our work.

Habitat for Whooping Cranes
A five person team using a large boat made observations of representative samples of potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes on Ray Roberts Lake. Team members in photo left to right: Martin K. Underwood, Environmental Stewardship Business Line Manager for the Trinity Region, USACE; Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, FOTWW; Nick Wilson, Lead Ranger for Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE; Rob Jordan, Lake Manager for both Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE. Team member FOTWW President Chester McConnell present but not in photo.
Habitat for Whooping Cranes
This photo exhibits one of the better “Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” that we observed on Ray Roberts Lake. It is currently suitable as a “stopover habitat”. Note the callout pointing to the narrow bar where Whoopers can walk out, feed and rest while being able to observe any predaters in the area. Note the two yellow arrows pointing to the long wide open areas where Whoopers can forage and rest.

***** 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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Wintering Whooping Crane Update

Wintering Whooping Crane Update, February 6, 2019

Wintering Whooping Crane Update Time
Dr. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Getting ready for the annual whooping crane abundance survey at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

We plan to begin our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, and our goal is to fly a minimum of six survey days. Phil Thorpe, with our Migratory Birds Program, will be piloting us in a wheeled Kodiak. Hopefully our dreary and wet weather as of late will clear enough to allow safe flying conditions.

Recruitment of juvenile cranes

In addition to an overall estimate of the winter population size, the survey provides us an estimate of how many juveniles were “recruited” into the population this year. Simply put, the only way to effectively grow a population is for births to exceed deaths—i.e. recruiting juveniles into the adult population. The past few years’ increases have been tied to high numbers of fledged chicks on the breeding grounds, but Canada only estimated 23 fledged chicks during their survey this past August. For comparison, that is 40 fewer chicks than reported in the August 2017 survey. Annual variation in fledged chicks is to be expected and we’ve seen this amount of fluctuation in the historic survey records dating back to the 1950’s. Weather in the breeding grounds is often a major driver of chick fledging rate in Wood Buffalo National Park. This past June, when most eggs were hatching, was unseasonably cold and wet—not ideal conditions for early chick survival.

Technology allows for better tracking

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Whooping Crane family in the morning sunlight at Aransas NWR. Photo by Kevin Sims – Aransas Bay Birding Charters (Click on photo to view full size)

Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 adult whooping cranes here on the Refuge with cellular telemetry devices. With these devices providing locations every 15 minutes, we are able to understand daily movements (night and day) and habitat use at a level that wasn’t available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.

One of the new developments that this technology is revealing is how and when whooping cranes move around here on the wintering range. In the past, we understood wintering whooping cranes, particularly mated pairs, to stay in a “territory” or one general area of a few hundred acres, all winter. With the telemetry data, we are starting to see a much more complex picture of movement, with some whooping crane pairs mostly following our traditional understanding of a single territory and others making multiple movements across the entire wintering range throughout the winter. It is difficult to say whether this is related to food availability or simply individual differences, but it does help us understand the need to focus our conservation efforts at a landscape scale—well beyond Refuge boundaries.

Opportunities for viewing whooping cranes

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas NWR to view whooping cranes in publicly 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 also 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 cranes at a respectful distance. Please come by and say hello to us at this year’s upcoming Whooping Crane Festival starting February 21 in Port Aransas!

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR

No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter due to the wet conditions.  However, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR this winter pending drying conditions.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR

December-current precipitation: 6.38” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 11 parts per thousand.

 

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Here’s where to find the early arrivals of the South Texas flock of whooping cranes

, Corpus Christi Caller Times

South Edge
Photo by Rockport Birding & Kayak Adventures

Excitement surrounds the first arrivals to South Texas of what is expected to be a record migration of endangered whooping cranes.

While fewer than 20 of the iconic 5-foot birds have been reported by casual observers and birders north of Rockport, officials with the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge estimate that about 25 percent of the flock, or 100 to 120 cranes, may already be in and around the refuge.

While a few had not left Canada as of this week, observers have reported seeing whooping cranes in every state along the Central Flyway from North Dakota to Texas, said the refuge’s Wade Harrell, whooping crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Based on what we’ve seen the last few years, it’ll likely be late December or early January before the entire population is in coastal Texas,” Harrell said.

The migration to Texas can take up to 50 days, with the population typically traveling in small groups and stopping to rest and refuel along the way.

Chester McConnell, president of the Friends of the Wild Whoopers nonprofit group, has been negotiating with military officials and Native American tribes along the flock’s migratory route to boost crane survival. McConnell’s goal is to partner with landowners to enhance wetlands along the Central Flyway.

This effort has resulted in unprecedented cooperation between the wild whooper group and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at suitable stopover sites in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, McConnell said.

To read David Sikes’ entire article, click here.

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