Corps of Engineers’ Bardwell Lake is another stepping stone in the Whooping Crane migration corridor

Bardwell Lake – another stepping stone in the Whopping Crane migration corridor
by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Bardwell Lake is an important link in a virtual chain of lakes within the Whooping Crane migration corridor. Bardwell has been visited by wild Whooping Cranes several times in recent years. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) believe that such visits are increasing due to two factors. First, some of the traditional sites where Whooping Cranes have stopped over to rest and feed have been eliminated due to changes in land use. Many thousands of wetland acres and small ponds within the Whooping Crane migration corridor have been converted to other uses. Likewise the increasing population of Whooping Cranes is using additional areas to stopover to rest and feed. They must stop 15 to 20 times to rest and feed during each of their two 2,500 mile migrations each year. They migrate to and from their Texas coast wintering grounds to their Canadian nesting area.

FOTWW is evaluating U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) lakes within the Whooping Crane migration corridor to assist in protecting and improving existing habitats and to encourage development of new stopover habitats. Bardwell Lake is about 45 miles south of Dallas, TX and has much potential for habitat improvements.

USACE and FOTWW tour Bardwell Lake

FOTWW Wildlife Biologist Chester McConnell visited Bardwell Lake to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. Martin Underwood, USACE – Environmental Stewardship (CESWF) made arrangements for our visit. Martin Underwood, James Murphy (Deputy Operations Project Manager, Trinity Regional Project) and McConnell traveled to Bardwell Lake. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Bardwell Lake with Lake Manager Jeremy Spencer, we made a tour of the lake property to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for an interesting, productive and enjoyable visit.

Bardwell Lake and Dam built for flood control and water conservation

Congress approved an act on March 31, 1960, authorizing construction of Bardwell Lake by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction began in September 1963 with impoundment beginning in November 1965. The total construction cost was $12,630,000.

Built to provide flood control and water conservation, Bardwell Lake and Dam controls runoff from 178 square miles of drainage area. At conservation level the lake is 5.4 miles long, 1.2 miles at its widest point, and has a shoreline of 25 miles. The lake has a fee owned perimeter of 39 miles. The total fee simple acreage (government owned property) is 7,488 acres with 675 acres of flowage easement lands (private property the government has an agreement with the landowners to flood.) Of this total acreage in fee simple, 3,570 is water area and 3,918 acres is land area above the conservation pool elevation.

Although not a primary purpose for the construction of Bardwell Lake, recreation has increasingly become a major component in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ multiple use approach to managing our nation’s resources. Recreation and favorable fish and wildlife habitats are other beneficial uses derived from this lake and others like it, built and operated by the Corps of Engineers.

Much of Bardwell Lake’s shore area is developed for recreational use and Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” is not compatible in some of these areas. The lake is shallow but most is not shallow enough for roosting areas. Whooping Cranes normally roost in areas with a depth of 2 inches to 10 inches. Importantly, some very good stopover habitats are located on the north western and north eastern areas of the lake shore. FOTWW recommended that Whooping Crane stopover habitat management efforts should focus on these areas.

Whooping Cranes observed on Bardwell Lake

According to Lake Manager Jeremy Spencer four Whooping Cranes have been observed on Bardwell Lake in recent years. Based on information from a recent U.S. Geological Survey study, 58 radio-tagged Whooping Cranes provided data on 2,158 stopover sites over 10 migrations and 5 years (2010-14). Several of these stopover sites were in the general vicinity of Bardwell Lake. Whoopers normally migrate over or near Bardwell Lake during March – (April (northward migration) and during October in the fall…

COE lakes within the 6 state migration corridor may become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Bardwell Lake and others that are located in the mid-section of the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable. As the crane population increases the migration corridor may also expand in width.

The photographs that follow were taken on Bardwell Lake. They show some very good stopover habitats that need a small amount of inexpensive management.

Bardwell Lake
Figure 1. This photo taken on the northeast side of lake illustrates a sample of a long expanse of open shore with a gentle slope into shallow water. The entire Bardwell Lake is shallow but the northeast side has over a mile of mostly open shore with a gradual slope into shallow water. The shore has some areas where trees are too close on the shore and need to be cut back so Whooping Cranes have an open glide path to a safe landing shore area.
Bardwell Lake
Figure 2. This photo depicts another section of shore on the northeast side of Bardwell Lake. Note that the shore is open with a gradual slope into very shallow water. This area of Bardwell Lake could be improved as a Whooping Crane stopover site if the bushes were cut back with a rotary cutter (Bush hog) a distance of 150 X 200 feet. The water is shallow all along this section of the shore. Much of the water is in the 2 inch to 10 inches depth range which the cranes need for roosting sites. Foraging for food is available in nearby agricultural fields.
Bardwell Lake
Figure 3. This photo was made on the northwest portion of Bardwell Lake. The water is shallow (one foot and less) in most of the area shown in this photo. Also much of the shore area is open with a few scattered trees. While this area could be a good stopover area currently, it can be improved by removing the few scattered trees on the shore. Much of the lake shore of the northwest arm of the lake is similar to this.
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Tom Stehn “Whooping Crane Science Advisor’

By Chester McConnell, FOTWW

Tom Stehn is now the “Whooping Crane Science Advisor” for Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW). Tom will provide answers to questions about Whooping Cranes posed by the interested public. Tom will also provide guidance to FOTWW concerning conservation, management and future needs of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of wild Whooping Cranes. The Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane flock is the only self-sustaining wild population on earth.

Tom Stehn
Figure 1. Tom Stehn checking on Whooping Cranes.

A question and answer section “Ask Tom Stehn” has been established on FOTWW’s web page. Questions asked by anyone will be entertained on the web site in an effort to provide scientifically accurate information to the public. To go to the site click here.

Tom Stehn’s professional qualifications and experience with Whooping Cranes are well known in the scientific community. He is a world class Whooping Crane biologist. He retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011.

Tom served as the refuge biologist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for 15 years and as the U.S. Coordinator of Whooping Crane Recovery Program for 14 years.  During these years he kept tabs on the only wild population of Whooping Cranes on earth, serving as the observer on weekly census flights.

Tom Stehn
Figure 2. Tom keeping watch over the Whoopers.

He served as a member of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team for 25 years.  He directed management and research efforts on the Whoopers, publishing 17 scientific articles.  Twice he helped radio-track the cranes between Texas and Canada, helped get erosion control mats installed along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and served for many years as the burn boss at Aransas carrying out prescribed burns to promote upland whooping crane use.

In 2016, Tom was selected by the North American Crane Working Group as the 8th recipient of the Walkinshaw Award given for long-time contributions to crane research and conservation. He has received may other awards during his distinguished career.

Tom Stehn has always stood ready to help others who needed to tap into his knowledge base and sought his advice. Friends of the Wild Whoopers is pleased and honored that he is continuing his willingness to share his knowledge about Whooping Cranes.

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Whooping cranes return to Coastal Bend

Whooping Cranes
This family of whooping cranes was at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last winter. Notice the cinnamon plumage on the juvenile walking behind its parents.(Photo: David Sikes)

After a record hatch at Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, an estimated 431 endangered whooping cranes are making their way into the marshes of and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Canada wildlife officials earlier reported 98 nests within Wood Buffalo National Park, which produced 63 fledglings. The old fledgling record set in 2006 was 49. Lush wetlands in Canada helped produce this record hatch, according to Chester A. McConnell, president of Friends of the Wild Whoopers. Salinity and marsh conditions at the Aransas refuge are favorable again this year.

The population’s health and continued growth relies on good habitat at their nesting site, in their wintering grounds, and everywhere in between, according to McConnell, who has been negotiating with military officials to enhance wetlands along the crane’s migratory route. And he’s garnered much cooperation.

Marsh conditions appear to be healthy, despite enduring a thrashing from Hurricane Harvey. The last time heavy rainfall inundated the birds’ wintering habitat the explosions of crabs and shrimp created a boon for whoopers and other wildlife.

To read David Sikes’ of The Corpus Christi Caller-Times article “Record number of whooping cranes expected to spend winter in the Coastal Bend”, click here.

 

***** 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.

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friendsofthewildwhoopers.org

 

 

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Wildlife refuge in bad shape after hurricane

By Jessica PriestVictoria Advocate

Wildlife Refuge
Whooping Cranes on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Photo by Kevin Sims

Damaged marshland might displace whooping cranes this fall.

Wade Harrell, who is coordinating the endangered species’ recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got his first look at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.

“There was an initial sense of shock and awe,” Harrell said, describing how the live oak trees many visitors are accustomed to seeing were stripped of their leaves by strong winds. “It was a lot to process on top of all the work that needs to be done.”

In the marshes, Harrell found a significant amount of debris. Some of the debris was man-made and might take months to remove.

“There were refrigerators in there. Stuff that probably came out of people’s houses in Rockport,” he said.

Before some debris can be removed, the fish and wildlife service will consult with its experts on contaminants.

“It’s sort of like doctors. When they are sworn in, they promise to do no harm. We want to make sure we’re not doing additional harm to the refuge versus what’s already been done. We want to make sure we go in a slow and methodical way,” he said.

Hurricane Harvey’s storm surge also affected the refuge’s freshwater ponds. It has as many as 70 that the whooping cranes could drink from in the past.

The San Antonio Bay shoreline that borders the refuge has also eroded, he said.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge covers about 115,000 acres, but the challenge the service faces in its cleanup effort is the refuge is not contiguous. Some parts abut private property, while others are only accessible by boat.

Although many animals call the refuge home, some visitors want to catch a glimpse of the tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane.

Standing at 5 feet, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in 1940. Now, there are more than 300 in the last naturally-occurring flock.

That flock is at Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park but will start migrating south next month.

In the fall and winter, the whooping cranes will forage for food on Texas’ coast, anywhere between Port Aransas to Port O’Connor.

“On any given year, probably about 50 percent of the population is within refuge boundaries,” Harrell said.

The refuge is closed, but Harrell said refuge manager, Joe Saenz, hopes to open a portion to the public as soon as possible.

“We know people are anxious to get out and see some of the changes that I described,” Harrell said.

The hurricane hit the refuge twice, once when it made landfall in Rockport about 48 miles away and then when it traveled back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The refuge is among eight closed because of the hurricane.

For updates on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, call 361-286-3559.

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