Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the National Wildlife Federation, water wells damaged during Hurricane Harvey and needed during droughts by endangered whooping cranes will be repaired. The wells having been drilled over the years, on and off Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, replenish freshwater ponds the cranes drink from.
Wade Harrell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ whooping crane recovery coordinator and James Dodson, project manager for the San Antonio Bay Partnership, hope to have the repairs completed by the end of November. Some whooping cranes will have reached the refuge by then, after migrating from Wood Buffalo National Park and if the repairs disturb the cranes, then they’ll be delayed.
Damaged marshland might displace whooping cranes this fall.
Wade Harrell, who is coordinating the endangered species’ recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got his first look at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.
“There was an initial sense of shock and awe,” Harrell said, describing how the live oak trees many visitors are accustomed to seeing were stripped of their leaves by strong winds. “It was a lot to process on top of all the work that needs to be done.”
In the marshes, Harrell found a significant amount of debris. Some of the debris was man-made and might take months to remove.
“There were refrigerators in there. Stuff that probably came out of people’s houses in Rockport,” he said.
Before some debris can be removed, the fish and wildlife service will consult with its experts on contaminants.
“It’s sort of like doctors. When they are sworn in, they promise to do no harm. We want to make sure we’re not doing additional harm to the refuge versus what’s already been done. We want to make sure we go in a slow and methodical way,” he said.
Hurricane Harvey’s storm surge also affected the refuge’s freshwater ponds. It has as many as 70 that the whooping cranes could drink from in the past.
The San Antonio Bay shoreline that borders the refuge has also eroded, he said.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge covers about 115,000 acres, but the challenge the service faces in its cleanup effort is the refuge is not contiguous. Some parts abut private property, while others are only accessible by boat.
Although many animals call the refuge home, some visitors want to catch a glimpse of the tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane.
Standing at 5 feet, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in 1940. Now, there are more than 300 in the last naturally-occurring flock.
That flock is at Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park but will start migrating south next month.
In the fall and winter, the whooping cranes will forage for food on Texas’ coast, anywhere between Port Aransas to Port O’Connor.
“On any given year, probably about 50 percent of the population is within refuge boundaries,” Harrell said.
The refuge is closed, but Harrell said refuge manager, Joe Saenz, hopes to open a portion to the public as soon as possible.
“We know people are anxious to get out and see some of the changes that I described,” Harrell said.
The hurricane hit the refuge twice, once when it made landfall in Rockport about 48 miles away and then when it traveled back out into the Gulf of Mexico.
The refuge is among eight closed because of the hurricane.
For updates on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, call 361-286-3559.
AUSTWELL — The panorama from the 40-foot observation deck at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is breathtaking. Stands of live oak dissolve to prairie grasses, which give way to coastal marshes en route to San Antonio Bay.
Look a little closer, though. There’s disorder amid the beauty.
A wooden platform has been blown or washed hundreds of yards away from its footing. A line of debris rings the brush along the service road, indicating the terminus of the storm surge. And nestled in the live oak grove, hundred-year-old trees with leaves stripped from their branches have been knocked over like bowling pins, their roots exposed.
“Nature’s resilient, and I know this area will recover,” refuge manager Joe Saenz said. “But the trees, once they’re gone, they’re gone. And trees here took a beating.”
The impact of Hurricane Harvey is everywhere — like it is in many places throughout Texas’ Gulf Coast. Here, the storm has placed the lone wintering ground for one of world’s most famous endangered species, the whooping crane, under threat.
The heart of the refuge, a 45,000-acre tract on the Blackjack Peninsula south of the tiny town of Austwell, is about 20 miles from the human tragedies found in Rockport, Port Aransas and Bayside. Harvey’s eyewall, bringing 130 mph winds, passed between those communities and the refuge more than two weeks ago.
Satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate a
good deal of beach erosion in another part of the refuge, on Matagorda Island, the barrier that protects the peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico. And as Saenz drives to the observation deck, he gestures to Dagger Point, a part of the shoreline that lost 20 yards from storm erosion.
Even so, things don’t look too bleak. At first glance, the marshes appear to be in good shape. And that’s crucial.
The marshes are the sanctuary for the whooping crane, and home to one of North America’s greatest successes in wildlife conservation.
Wondering what is involved with counting whooping cranes?
Each fall, the natural wild flock of whooping cranes migrates the 2,500 miles from their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for the winter. They live on the Texas coast a few months of the year and they spend that time feeding in the remote wetlands of the refuge and surrounding area. So how do U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists estimate the number of whooping cranes in existence today? The answer: long hours in a small plane flying a grid and looking very, very closely at what is happening on the ground.
While the whooping cranes are in Texas, researchers conduct surveys by plane to gauge the status of the population. They fly several flights and while flying a grid pattern over the refuge, they have to be able to discern which birds are whooping cranes. Can you find the whooping cranes in the photo below?
The data collected from the flights is used to calculate an estimate of the wild whooping crane population. If you would like to see more photos and read more details about how USFWS conducts their aerial surveys on the Aransas NWR, click here.
Counting whooping cranes is not an easy task and FOTWW thanks the USFWS for taking the time and going into detail on how the surveys are conducted.
***** 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.