Wintering Whooping Crane Update Time
Dr. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
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
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.
Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 1, 2018
Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
Fall migration is upon us and we expect to have our first confirmed whooping crane in the area later this month! We have received a few unconfirmed reports of a few whooping cranes in Texas already, but have yet to receive a report with a photo or full description. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look here. Many early fall observations of whooping cranes end up being American White Pelicans or Wood Storks, though both of these species usually arrive in Texas before whooping cranes and are often observed in larger flocks.
Cold and wet conditions early this summer contributed to a below-average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). Eighty-seven nests were counted in May, producing an estimated 24 fledged whooping cranes (counted in August) that are now headed south on their first migration to Texas. It is likely that lower than normal chick survival was due in part to exposure to the wet, cold conditions. We know from historical records that we see a dip in chick recruitment and the population size about once a decade, and we may be witnessing that pattern again this year.
The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take as many as 50 days to complete. Right now, 9 of 11 of the whooping cranes that are alive from recent marking efforts in summer of 2017 and last winter have moved south out of WBNP and are in Central Saskatchewan. Three of these birds were marked as juveniles at WBNP and 6 were marked as adults here at Aransas NWR. 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.
We have not received any migration reports from the U.S. portion of the Central Flyway yet, nor have any reports surfaced via eBird, Texas Whooper Watch, or other citizen science sites. Thus, it is likely that few, if any, whooping cranes have crossed the 49th parallel just yet. Once northern cold fronts become stronger, the pace of migration will increase.
Texas Whooper Watch
Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch. For instructions on how to report, please refer to this website.
Current conditions at Aransas NWR:
Food & Water Abundance:
September was definitely one for the record books, with at least 17.54” of rain reported at Aransas NWR. This is around half of our average annual rainfall, and as you can imagine it has created fresh conditions in the coastal marshes and standing water across large portions of the Refuge. Since June, we have recorded 36.19” of rain and the National Weather Service 3-month outlook suggests that the fall weather pattern will continue to be wetter and warmer than normal. Generally, wet periods bode well for whooping crane foods in the marsh such as blue crabs and wolfberries.
Habitat Management at Aransas:
We were able to burn one large unit (3,780 acres) on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies adjacent to coastal marsh areas that are heavily used by whooping cranes. By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that would not normally be available to the whooping cranes. Summer burns are typically more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, and thus are an important habitat management tool at Aransas NWR.
Refuge Celebration October 13:
I hope you will come join us at Aransas NWR on Saturday, October 13, from 9 am to 3 pm for the annual Refuge Day Celebration and participate in a number of free, family-friendly activities that we have planned – archery, fishing, kayaking, target shooting, live animal displays, arts and crafts, nature journaling, photo scavenger hunt, face painting, and more!
***** 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.
Estimated Texas Wintering Whooping Crane Population Breaks 500
Survey accuracy improved with shift from December to February timeframe
The first winter after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, an estimated 505 whooping cranes arrived on their Texas wintering grounds after migrating 2,500 miles from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Each fall the birds make their way back to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding habitats, where they spend the winter. Once they have arrived, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey the birds by air and analyze population trends.
Biologists have completed analysis of aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population done last winter. A switch in aircraft the previous winter and a shift to surveying later in the winter when a larger proportion of the population had arrived helped improve accuracy of the counts. Preliminary data analysis indicated 505 whooping cranes, including 49 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas. An additional 21 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 6th year in a row that the population has increased in size and the first time the population has topped the 500 mark.
“Breaking the 500 mark for this wild population is a huge milestone”, stated Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “Seeing this iconic bird continue to expand demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can help a species recover from the brink of extinction. I have to credit our biologists and our partners and local communities who continue to invest so much time and effort to improve our ability to make sure future generations have the chance to marvel at the beauty of these amazing wild birds.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented several small changes that have greatly improved the agency’s capacity to survey the birds. “After two years of testing a shift of our December survey timeframe to later in the winter, we believe our previous survey estimates were likely low given that not all the whooping cranes had completed migration by mid-December. We had indications of a later than expected fall migration over the last several years via migration reports and telemetry data. This is the first year that we have based our winter abundance estimate from a February survey timeframe rather than a December timeframe. It may seem like population numbers jumped more than usual, but in reality we are just capturing a more complete proportion of the population, with most birds having completed migration by early February” stated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Wade Harrell.
Harrell said biologists will continue to conduct flights in late January and early February for future surveys. He also stated that staff at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge continue to make progress in recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Harvey. “The good news is that the coastal marsh that supports our wintering whooping cranes was not significantly damaged by the hurricane and recovered quickly from any impacts, demonstrating how resilient intact wetland habitats can be.”
Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in North America and are highly endangered. Cranes have been documented to live more than 30 years in the wild. Adults generally reach reproductive age at four or five years, and then lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick.
More information about the survey and whooping cranes can be found on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge website at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/ or by calling the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Contact Station at: (361) 349-1181.
To read an in depth report of the survey results in PDF format, click here.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.
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.