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.
Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Fall migration is coming to a close and whooping cranes have all moved south out of their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). It was a record breeding year in WBNP; with above average conditions contributing to an estimated 63 fledged whooping cranes headed South on their first migration to Texas. The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to about 50 days to complete. It will probably be a few more weeks until the entire Aransas Wood Buffalo whooping crane population has arrived on the Texas coast. We were able to fit a few whooping crane juveniles this August in WBNP with new cellular-based telemetry equipment, and I want to walk you through the fall migration of one of these juveniles and its parents.
First off, let me provide a bit of information about our new telemetry devices. In our former telemetry study, we used satellite-based telemetry. These devices provided 3-5 locations every 24 hours and communicated that via space satellite. Our new telemetry devices have the capability to provide significantly more data compared to our previously used devices. We are now using cellular-based telemetry devices, meaning they relay location data using ground-based cellular towers, just like your mobile phone does. The device is powered by a solar-charged battery. As long as the marked bird is in the range of a cellular tower, we receive a data download every day via internet. Each data download contains locations for the bird every 30 minutes over the past 24 hours. The new telemetry devices are also equipped with what is called an accelerometer, meaning we can determine the speed of the bird, indicating if it is in flight or on the ground.
The journey of “7A”, fall 2017 migration:
On 2 August, a team of biologist captured and marked a 3 month old whooping crane in Wood Buffalo National Park, around the nest where he was hatched about 60 miles south of the Great Slave Lake, and fitted him with one of our new cellular-based telemetry units (identified as “7A”). This young whooping crane and his parents left their breeding area the morning of 26 September, to start on their long journey south.
On the first night away from their nesting area, 7A and his family roosted on Gipsy Lake, 35 miles SE of Fort McMurray, AB. The next morning (27 September) the family traveled to Witchekan Lake near Spiritwood, SK and spent the night. On the morning of 28 September, they traveled to their “staging ground” area, the prairie pothole region of Central Saskatchewan. They spent the next month foraging on waste grains in the agricultural areas and in wetlands around Prud’ Homme, SK. After a strong frontal passage bringing northerly winds and colder weather, they proceeded south on the morning of 29 October.
They crossed the Canada/United States border around mid-day near the NW corner of North Dakota and spent that night on the banks of the Missouri River about 20 miles SE of Bismarck, North Dakota. The next morning, 30 October, they continued south, roughly following the Missouri River as it winds through South Dakota. With a strong tailwind, they were able to cross South Dakota in about 3 hours, without stopping. They continued through Nebraska that day, crossing the Platte River just east of Gibbon, Nebraska. They did not stop in Nebraska either, traversing the state in about 4 hours. That evening they arrived at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area in Central Kansas, known as the largest interior wetland in the United States. This is a well-known and established migration stopover habitat location for not only whooping cranes, but a number of other migratory bird species. The next afternoon, on 31 October, they traveled about 20 miles south to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, where they would spend the next 12 days. Quivira NWR received a record amount of migrating whooping crane use this fall, with over 112 individuals reported there, more than 25% of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population.
They left Quivira NWR on the morning of 12 November and traveled south about 150 miles to an area of native mixed-grass prairie about 3 miles west of Fairview, Oklahoma. They spent 3 days there, leaving on the morning of 15 November and crossing the Texas border mid-day just to the east of Wichita Falls. That night, they roosted on a farm pond in Bosque County in central Texas. The morning of 16 November, the family continued south through Texas, stopping briefly in southern Bastrop County and then northern Gonzales County. Evidently they were disturbed that night as they made several, short nighttime movements just west of Waelder, Texas. Nocturnal flight is fairly rare and relatively unknown for whooping cranes, but our new telemetry devices allows us to observe this behavior. Only a short distance from their winter home, they left the morning of 17 November and headed south. Early that afternoon, they flew over Victoria, just north of Aransas NWR. Shortly thereafter, they made it to the Tatton Unit of Aransas NWR and roosted there along Salt Creek. The next morning, they made a short jump south and set up what looks to be their wintering territory here on Aransas NWR, where they will likely spend most of their time over the next several months.
The “7A” family had a fairly normal fall migration, taking 52 days and a bit over 2,500 miles to complete. You’ll note that the “pit stops” that they made along the way almost always were tied to quality wetland and prairie habitats. Protecting and restoring these types of habitats across the vast Great Plains of North America really is key to making sure whooping crane migrations are successful.
Texas Whooper Watch
Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (512) 389-TXWWW (8999)
Current conditions at Aransas NWR:
Food & Water Abundance:
You’ve likely seen many of the news articles related to the impacts of Hurricane Harvey on Aransas NWR, so I won’t go into detail here on that topic. But from all appearances, the coastal marsh habitat that whooping cranes rely on here in the winter seem to have held up well to what is a natural disturbance. While the human impact has been significant, natural habitats often quickly recover after this type of event. From a long-term perspective, the freshwater inflows associated with the hurricane’s rain event will improve coastal marsh condition. We’ve seen a number of whooping cranes that have arrived at Aransas NWR foraging successfully in the coastal marsh as they have for eons. We will continue to monitor habitat conditions and whooping crane behavior and adjust our management accordingly.
Long-time volunteers recognized:
I want to take a minute to recognize a few long-time volunteers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge that really do make a difference for our wildlife and wild places. First off, Ron Smudy, a long-time volunteer at Aransas, will be awarded as the 2017 Coastal Steward by the Coastal Bend Bays Foundation at the annual Environmental Awards banquet on 7 December. Ron has put a great deal of “sweat equity” into Aransas over the years, from mowing, cutting and spraying invasive species to helping our maintenance staff with all sorts of projects. We truly wouldn’t have the Refuge as we know it without folks like Ron. Additionally, I want to recognize Fred and Linda Lanoue, long-time board members of the Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island Refuge. They will soon be leaving Texas and were honored this past Saturday at a luncheon, thanking them for all their work with environmental causes around the Texas coastal bend. Fred and Linda’s tireless work with the FAMI board help us accomplish worthwhile projects that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Unfortunately, both Ron and the Lanoue’s were personally impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Our hearts go out to them as they start new chapters in their lives and we reflect on all the good work they have done at Aransas NWR.
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.