“Stopover Habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes and military bases

May 12, 2019

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are receiving significant awareness and interest about their habitat needs in Texas and other states. It’s happening on Corps of Engineer (COE) lakes and military bases throughout Texas. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) have recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional Corps lakes. This brings the total assessments in Texas to fifteen lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

FOTWW’s focus on “stopover habitat”.

FOTWW is often asked, what is the organization doing for Whooping Cranes? Our answer is that we are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. During past years, most interest in Whooping Crane habitat has focused on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Aransas Refuge is the wintering habitat and Wood Buffalo is the nesting habitat for the cranes.

Importantly, Whooping Cranes spend 8 to 10 weeks migrating from their Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge winter habitat. They cannot fly the total 2,500 mile distance without stopping to feed and rest. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

Unfortunately, relatively little interest has focused on “stopover habitat” where the Whoopers stop to rest and feed every night during migration. These stopover locations are scattered all along the 2,500 mile long migration corridor between Aransas Refuge and Wood Buffalo. Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist stresses that “stopover habitats” are absolutely necessary and the Whooping Crane population could not exist without these areas. Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats.”

Habitat Importance

McConnell explains that, “Habitat is the most important need of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane population. It is the only remaining wild, self-sustaining Whooping Crane population on planet Earth. The Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Cranes can take care of themselves with two exceptions. They need man to help protect their habitat and for people not to shoot them.” So FOTWW is dedicated to protecting and managing existing and potential stopover habitat where we can.

FOTWW has very little funding assistance and decided to work with government agencies and Indian tribes who own land distributed all along the migration corridor from North Dakota to Texas. Land is the most expensive item and the Corps, military and Indian tribes already own thousands of acres. McConnell met with these land owners and explained the habitat needs of Whooping Cranes and how they could contribute without interfering with their normal missions. Fortunately, there was exceptional support and FOTWW has been working on the mission for over three years.

McConnell explained that he uses 85 percent of his working time traveling to meet with government land managers and Indian tribe natural resource managers. He instructs them on needs of endangered Whooping Cranes and importantly, he also evaluates their wetland habitats and prepare management plans to guide them to successfully manage their “stopover habitats”.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Proctor Lake, Stillhouse Hollow Lake, Belton and Lake Georgetown recently to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our visit and is a major supporter of FOTWW efforts. Park Ranger Todd Spivey led us on an in-depth tour of Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lake that allowed us to evaluate areas that are difficult to visit. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable habitat evaluation official visit

The following photos and descriptions will assist readers to understand our work.

Figure 1: A three person team traveled by boat to numerous potential “stopover habitats” in Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lakes that wild Whooping Cranes could use during their two annual migrations. The team was evaluating the usefulness of the various locations as potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Many good sites were observed that can be easily developed and managed. (Identification from left to right: Chester McConnell, President, Friends of the Wild Whoopers; Todd Spivey, USACE Park Ranger, Stillhouse Hollow Lake; and Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
stopover habitat
Figure 2. This is an excellent location for a Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” onStillhouse Lake, TX. Glide paths (arrows) for Whooping Cranes landing area is clear of obstructions and provides a gradual slope into the shallow water. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The area opening in the bushes from the field to water is about 60 feet wide and provides a satisfactory place for Whooping Cranes to move to the water to roost without obstructions. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging
stopover habitat
Figure 3. This photo shows a potentially exceptional “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Stillhouse Lake, TX. The glide path for Whooping Cranes landing is clear of obstructions. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The “orange block” shows location of area 50 feet long that needs all bushes cleared so Whooping Cranes can move from the field to water without fear of hiding predators. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging.
stopover habitat
Figure 4. This Belton Lake location is one of the better sites that we observed to serve as a potential “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Flight glide paths are clear from all directions. The few obstructions at the landing site can be easily removed by applying a chemical brush killer. There are few thick stands of bushes or trees in or near landing site and these can be remove relatively easy. FOTWW believes a chemical brush killer that kills bushes above ground, the roots underground and stumps is the preferred method to use. Clipping bushes above ground or pulling them up will leave many of the roots in place and they will soon sprout back.  ~ The gradual or gentle slopes into lakes where water is shallow is necessary for Whooping Crane roosting sites. This is the condition we observed here. The birds select lakes/ponds/wetlands with some shallow areas 2 inches to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. The cranes like extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Roost sites also need to be 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines and loud noises. If food is not available, agricultural grain fields or pasture land should be within one mile of stopover site for foraging.
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.



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.


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.