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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Wildlife service releasing water to Platte River for whooping cranes

Platte River
Whooping Cranes – Rowe Sanctuary Photo: © John Smeltzer

Whooping cranes are passing through Nebraska for their annual migration, and wildlife officials are helping them by releasing more water into the Platte River at Grand Island.

The release will provide and maintain adequate roosting and feeding habitat for whooping cranes on the Platte River, and is expected to continue through early to mid-November when the whooping cranes leave the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release water from their Environmental Account beginning on Oct. 19. The cranes use the Platte River in Nebraska as a stopover site during their migration in the Central Flyway south to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas for the winter.

Read more here.

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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 1, 2018

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.

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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