Corps, Wild Whoopers team up to save conservation icon

Story by David Hoover
USACE, Kansas City District

USACE
A flock of whooping cranes stop to feed and rest in a field at the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, Kanopolis Lake during their fall migration. Conservation efforts in the U.S. and Canada have seen the population increase to an estimated 504 birds. (Photo by U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District ©2017)

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes nests and rears their young in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta/Northwest Territories, Canada, during spring and summer. After the chicks fledge, adults and juveniles migrate 2,500 miles through seven states to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas where they spend the winter.

Cranes must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed during their migration. Radio telemetry conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and direct field observation has documented migration stopovers that often occur in habitats associated with water resources development projects managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers throughout the migration corridor.

The founder and president of the non-profit Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW), Chester McConnell worked with Dr. Richard 
Fischer of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center; Jeremy Crossland, USACE Headquarters land uses and natural resources program manager; and Michael Champaign, USACE, Fort Worth District biologist, to develop and finalize a Memorandum of Understanding between the Corps of Engineers and FOTWW to assess whooping crane migration stopover habitat and identify measures to maintain or improve that habitat on water resources development projects in the migration corridor.

To read David Hoover’s complete article about the USACE/FOTWW partnership and “stopover habitat” project, click here and scroll to Pages 34-35.

***** 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.

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, February 6, 2020

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

whooping crane abundance survey
Birds on the ground, viewed from the survey plane (original photo: Tom Stehn)

We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, and were able to fly three primary surveys and two secondary surveys. Areas surveyed stretch along the Texas coast from Matagorda to Port Aransas.  Phil Thorpe, pilot with the USFWS Migratory Birds program, flew the survey crew in a wheeled Kodiak again this year. 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 last summer. Better juvenile recruitment this past year in Canada (37) compared to 2018 (24) should result in a larger population this year.  For more information on our wintering abundance survey, click here.

Our secondary survey (on the edges of the core wintering range) is crucial in determining future expansion areas for a growing population. We are getting reports of whooping cranes in quite a variety of places outside our primary survey area this year, including a pair near Matagorda, Texas, three adults in Port Aransas, and marked birds in Colorado County.  A juvenile whooping crane marked last summer in Wood Buffalo National Park stopped migrating in Kansas, and is currently with a flock of sandhill cranes at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas NWR for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 whooping cranes 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 was not available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to view whooping cranes in publically accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted this winter from the Heron Flats viewing deck at a much closer distance than the pair at the observation tower, providing visitors a more intimate viewing experience.  You can find a map of the refuge trails here.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:

Due to wet weather, we are just getting started on prescribed burning.  Our goal is to burn approximately 13,000 acres this year, the majority of which is whooping crane habitat.  So far we have completed prescribed burns totaling 1,600 acres on the Blackjack Peninsula and plan to burn at least 900 acres more this week.

Fire crews responded to a wildfire on Matagorda Island in early December.  Although this fire was unplanned, it will provide immediate and long-term benefits to whooping cranes and other wildlife. Part of the area that burned was scheduled to be burned this winter to improve habitat for whooping cranes and other wildlife. Whooping and sandhill cranes will both feed in “blackened” or freshly burned habitat and burning woody/brush species around freshwater ponds removes cover for predators. Fire also maintains coastal prairie habitat that benefits Aplomado Falcons and other prairie-dependent species.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:

January-February-current precipitation: 4.85” @ Aransas HQ
Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 19 ppt

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If at first you don’t succeed, try again!

Homer Moyers, Jr. and his wife had gone to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the spring for the first time to photograph the whooping cranes at the refuge. However, the morning of their trip was so foggy all of their photos were pretty disappointing. At that time they decided they had to go back in November and indeed they did return. They found out about Kevin Sim’s charter boats, Aransas Bay Birding Charters, and booked a trip on the Jack Flash.

Monday, November 25 2019, was a beautiful morning for observing and photographing all the various birds on the refuge. Homer sent us some photos taken during their outing and we have compiled them into short slideshow for your enjoyment.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Homer for sending us the fabulous photos and we are sure that you will enjoy them as much as we did.

Whooping cranes from the natural wild population enjoying some tasty treats at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photos courtesy of Homer Moyers, Jr. View slideshow at full screen for best results.

MUSIC: At The Shore – The Dark Contenent by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100770
Artist: http://incompetech.com/

***** 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.
FOTWW on GuideStar

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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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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