Aransas Refuge Wintering Whooping Crane Update

by  Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, USFWS

We’ve had exciting news here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: four adult whooping cranes arrived about a month ahead of normal early arrival time! These four birds were first sighted on Friday, September 12 by an area fishing guide and confirmed with photos by Refuge staff on Monday, September 15. Although not unheard of, this early arrival is fairly rare. The average early arrival date for wintering whooping cranes is around the second week of October. We haven’t had any other migration reports as of yet, but as frontal passages become more frequent, migration should begin in earnest.

Fall Migration Behavior:

I often receive questions about timing and speed of migration this time of the year, and will try to summarize what we know about whooping crane migration. We have some information that was collected by the Canadian Wildlife Service during the first whooping crane telemetry study in the early 1980’s. At that time, researchers actually followed a few migrating whooping cranes in a single-engine prop plane to determine migration behavior.

Here is a bulleted summary of some of the findings:

(Kuyt, E. 1992. Aerial radio-tracking of whooping cranes migrating between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 1981-84.)

Whooping cranes do not all migrate simultaneously.

Total migration distance is 2,500 miles.

“Fall migration of yearlings and subadults began after the middle of September, with family groups and some paired adults following in early October.”

“Whooping cranes usually migrated as pairs, family groups or small aggregates of 4-5 subadults.”

Weather conditions were important in determining migration initiation and stopovers.

Typical fall migration took up to 50 days, consisting of a:
…  2-3 day flight from the breeding grounds Wood Buffalo NP to Saskatchewan;
…  1-5 week “staging period” in the Saskatchewan prairie pothole region; and a
…  1 week journey through the US plains states.

During average flying days, under normal weather conditions, flights consisted of:
…  Flights during daylight hours;
…  Average flight distance of 250 miles over 7.5 hrs; and
…  Flights at < 2,000 ft. altitude.

Greatest observed flight behaviors included:
… Flight speed of >62 miles per hour;
… Flight altitude of 6,400 ft.; and
… Daily flight distance > 500 miles.

As the whooping crane population continues to grow, we expect to see a wider range of behaviors than we have observed in the past. Keep in mind when the study referenced above was conducted, there were only about 75 whooping cranes in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population and now there are over 300. A larger population will exhibit a greater variation in behaviors, which will help the species continue to recover (i.e. individuals seeking out new habitats, etc.).

Texas Whooper Watch

Be sure to report any Texas sightings beyond the known Aransas/Lamar area via email:  whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512) 389-TXWW (8999).

Habitat at the Refuge:

Freshwater ponds on the Refuge, while still not at the “normal” level, have at least some water available as compared to last year. We are currently working to rehabilitate one freshwater well and drill a new freshwater well on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR to provide drinking water for whooping cranes and other wildlife species. We owe a big thanks to the San Antonio Bay Partnership for taking the lead on administering and funding this important project. We hope to provide some pictures of wildlife using these freshwater sites in the near future, so stay tuned!

Precipitation/Salinity:

The Refuge has received slightly more than 5” of rain from July through today. We expect to see more rain this week, which is greatly needed considering the continued drought conditions. A large rainfall event would help to fill and maintain our freshwater wetlands and freshen up the marshes used by whooping cranes. Salinity levels in San Antonio Bay are currently around 29 parts per thousand, which is reflective of the continued drought conditions and limited freshwater inflows from the Guadalupe/San Antonio River basin.

Two of four whooping cranes that made early migration to Aransas Refuge. Arrivaled  9/15/14 Photo by Laura Bonneau/USFWS
Two of four whooping cranes that made early migration to Aransas Refuge. Arrivaled 9/15/14
Photo by Laura Bonneau/USFWS

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of
wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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Whooping cranes make early surprise arrival on Aransas Refuge

Four adult whooping cranes made an early surprise arrival on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last week. Normally, the whoopers do not begin arriving on the refuge until October. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator wrote Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW): “As you noted on the FOTWW page, we did confirm the presence of 4 adult whooping cranes on Aransas NWR yesterday afternoon. Same general location that was noted by the fishing guide, so it is likely the same individuals.”Four whoopers made early surprise arrival on Aransas NWR.

Four whoopers made early surprise arrival on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.The first report about the whooper’s arrival was made by a local fishing guide.  The guide had observed the birds at Sundown Bay in Aransas Refuge on  (September 11 ).

When the whoopers arrival was first disclosed last week, local birders and Aransas personnel were skeptical. Some believed the birds may have been Wood Storks or Sandhill cranes. Both of these birds are often mistaken for whooping cranes. They are similar in size and appearance, especially at a distance. Others wondered if the birds had traveled from the experimental Louisiana “non-migratory” flock. There were numerous questions by serious birders.

Pam Bates, FOTWW Vice President keeps in touch with “whooper watchers” all along the 2,500 mile flyway from Fort Smith, Canada to Aransas, Texas. None of Pam’s contacts had reported seeing whoopers since the northward spring migration. Bates advised, “We haven’t heard of any being sighted along the flyway or in Saskatchewan staging areas. I haven’t heard of any sightings from Regina or Saskatoon.”  So, the early arrival caught everyone by surprise.

The USFWS Southwest Region Facebook page advised “Whooping Cranes have arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Four adults, the first arrivals this wintering season, were spotted by a local fishing guide and confirmed by refuge staff.”

During the past several days, birders have kept busy on social media attempting to determine the truth about the 4 whooping cranes. They succeeded. Now the birders can get some rest after their relentless pursuit of the facts.

by Chester McConnell Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of
wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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Whooping Crane group challenges Texas river water interests

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is issuing a challenge to legal minds and officials to offer solutions to resolve river flow dilemmas in Texas to save endangered whooping cranes.  Whooping cranes are the symbol of conservation in North America. These beautiful birds stand 5 feet tall and are treasures to many thousands of people in the U.S. and other countries. Yet these magnificent birds are facing increasing threats. FOTWW wants to know if law firms or government agencies informed about the issue care enough to lend a helping hand?

FOTWW would appreciate receiving legally binding recommendations to help in this cause. Several law firms that wrote their thoughts about the“The Aransas Project v. Shaw” court suit  should certainly have ideas for a reasonable solution/compromise. Please email your thoughts to: admin@FOTWW.org or fill out our  contact form. With your permission we would post your recommendations on our web site: https://friendsofthewildwhoopers.org/ . Honest, considerate debate will be appreciated. This request for recommendations has no connection to the ongoing legal appeal Aransas Project v. Shaw. For background on the situation, please continue reading.

Two whooping cranes feeding in wetland.
Two whooping cranes feeding in wetland.

Approximately 304 endangered whooping cranes currently make their fall and winter home on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Every spring they migrate 2,500 miles north to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada where they nest and rear their young chicks. Whooping cranes have been following this schedule for centuries.

When Europeans came to North America the situation began to change for whooping cranes. The new settlers had fire arms and killed the whoopers for food more effectively than the Indians before them. Even worse, settlers drained wetland sites used by the cranes as habitat. Millions of acres of whooper habitat were destroyed and converted to cities and agricultural fields.

As a result of man’s deeds whooping crane populations plummeted. They were eradicated from their habitats along the Atlantic coast, much of the Gulf of Mexico coast and vast areas of the northern United States and Canadian prairies.

In the early 1940’s, their numbers declined to a low of 15 on the Texas coast and 6 on the Louisiana coast. The last crane in Louisiana was captured in 1950 and relocated to Aransas Refuge where it died a year later. Then only 15 wild whooping cranes remained. These birds were the last of the only remaining self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes on the planet. After recognizing that whooping cranes were about to become extinct conservation interests worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reverse the downward trend. Their efforts were successful and the whooper population has slowly increased over the past 70 years to approximately 304 birds.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge complex. photo by Jim Foster
Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge complex.                                                          photo by Jim Foster

Unfortunately, alarming signs of trouble are once again threatening whooping cranes. As the U.S. human population has increased more habitats used by the cranes has been destroyed and degraded. And now the huge human population growth and development in Texas is using ever increasing quantities of fresh water.

There are 7,400 dams in Texas. 4,700 of these dams create reservoirs having a surface area greater than 5 acres. Corps of Engineers map.
There are 7,400 dams in Texas. 4,700 of these dams create reservoirs having a surface area greater than 5 acres. Corps of Engineers map.  Click on the map to enlarge.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are 7,400 dams in Texas. A total of 4,700 of these dams create reservoirs having a surface area greater than 5 acres. The volume of the 4,700 – 5 acre or larger lakes/reservoirs totals 1,988,801,388 acre-feet and a surface area of 2,269,900 acres. These lakes/reservoirs have many benefits but they do reduce the natural stream flows reaching estuaries and have adverse impacts on these important areas.

Less and less fresh water is being allowed to flow downstream into estuaries along the gulf coast. The inflows of fresh water mixing with sea water provides high levels of nutrients in both the water column and sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world. With reduced inflows of fresh river waters however, estuaries are suffering.

Healthy estuaries associated with San Antonio Bay, Matagorda Bay and Copana Bay within the Aransas Refuge complex are essential to whooping cranes. Estuaries along this area of the coast produce the foods for whooping cranes and numerous other species. Without the proper mix of fresh water and salt water, life in the estuaries declines to a point that wild critters depending on the normal situation starve or become unhealthy and do not reproduce.

FOTWW requests that individuals, law firms and agency officials offer their advice for legal solutions/compromise to assure that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality adopts and enforces appropriate environmental flow standards for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins. This is essential in order for the San Antonio Bay system to adequately support a sound ecological environment to the maximum extent reasonable considering other public interests and other relevant factors. Also there is a need to establish an amount of unappropriated water, if available, to be set aside to satisfy the environmental flow standards to the maximum extent reasonable when considering human water needs.

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of
wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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