Benbrook Lake, a surprise stopover habitat for Whooping Cranes in Texas

By Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is continuing its efforts to encourage government agencies and Indian Reservations to manage portions of their lands to help wild Whooping Cranes. Whoopers and many other wildlife species often use the same wetland habitats and specific adjustments to portions of selected wetland sites could be beneficial to many species. FOTWW focuses its efforts on protecting existing Whooper habitats, planning needed habitat improvements where needed and encouraging landowner/managers to support our efforts. 

Benbrook Lake a nice surprise               

Chester McConnell FOTWW’s Wildlife Biologist is currently visiting U.S. Army Corps of Engineer (USACE) lakes in the 7 state Whooping Crane migration corridor to evaluate habitats. McConnell explained that “Friends of the Wild Whoopers is evaluating lakes, small ponds and wetlands throughout the mid-west to help protect and improve “stopover habitats” for the Whoopers.” He revealed that, “During a visit to the USACE Benbrook Lake in mid-Texas, I had a welcome surprise. I visited the lake to evaluate its suitability as a place where wild Whooping Cranes could stopover and rest during their two annual migrations through Texas. The lake had some excellent habitat in several locations.”

During our interview, McConnell divulged that, “I pondered what I might observe during my evaluation of a lake in the south west edge of the densely human populated city of Fort Worth. It certainly didn’t seem to be a place that Whooping Cranes would use to stopover to rest and feed. Yet, I have had many surprises during my long career and I have observed many unexpected behaviors by wild critters. During my review of records prior to my visit, I had learned that some Whooping Cranes had actually stopped over on the lake. And during my on-the-ground evaluation of Benbrook Lake I was indeed surprised to observe that there were ample, good quality habitat sites with all the features that the cranes need to make a visit.”

Benbrook Lake
One juvenile and two adult Whooping Cranes. Photo by John Noll

McConnell’s evaluation revealed that, “Some of the habitat around Benbrook Lake is currently in excellent condition to serve as secure Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. However some of the potential habitats will not be useful because they are too close to developed areas and trees grow too close to the lake shore. Still, several such areas have potential and can easily and inexpensively be developed into stopover habitat. Importantly open landscapes near most favorable stopover habitats allow Whooping Cranes to easily locate the sites and provide ready observation of any predator threats (see photos below). The scarcity of tall bushes and trees close to these habitats provide easily accessible flight approach corridors for Whooping Cranes entering the area.

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 additional stopover sites were also in the general vicinity of Benbrook Lake. And one Whooper has been recorded on the lake.

Whoopers normally migrate over or near Benbrook Lake during (March – April (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). They normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart the following morning.

Benbrook Lake important to Whooping Cranes

USACE lakes within the 7 state migration corridor may become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Benbrook Lake and others that are located in the mid-section of the Whooping Crane migration corridor are very important. As the crane population increases they will need more areas to stop over and rest and forage for food. Any Whooping Cranes that may stopover during their fall migration still have over 400 miles remaining to fly to their winter home on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast. And if they stopover while migrating north to their nesting area on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, they have over 2,000 miles more to fly.

Benbrook Lake
Figure 1. This photo on shoreline of north Holiday Park Day Use area is an excellent example of a “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. It provides a flight guide path for approaching Whoopers to easily land on shore. The shore area is free of tall thick vegetation which allows the cranes to readily observe predators. The shore’s gradual slope allows the birds to wade into the shallow water (2” inches to 10” depths) to roost. Foraging for food is available in the shallow water along the shoreline and in the grass area on shore.

FOTWW was pleased to have the opportunity to visit USACE’s Benbrook Lake. The lake and surrounding land area has good fish and wildlife habitat and some excellent Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We were pleased to learn that Whooping Cranes have already begun using the lake properties along with thousands of waterfowl, American egrets and other critters that need wetlands. FOTWW believes that Whooping Crane use of Benbrook Lake will continue and increase as their population continues to increase.

Benbrook Lake also allows a number of other uses of the land and waters including fishing, hunting, birding, camping and other types of recreational activities. Outdoor recreational activities are open to the general public.

Benbrook Lake
Photo by Klaus Nigge

Martin Underwood, USACE – Environmental Stewardship (CESWF) made arrangements for our visit. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Benbrook Lake, Mr. Underwood guided us on a tour of the lake property to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. FOTWW appreciates Mr. Underwood for making preparations for an interesting, productive and enjoyable visit.

Benbrook Lake
Figure 2. This shallow grass area could be a good place for Whooping Cranes to stopover and forage for insects and aquatic animals. Likewise, it is a good place for them to rest and roost. It provides flight guide paths from any direction for approaching Whoopers to easily land in the grass or on shore.. The shore area is free of tall thick vegetation which allows the cranes to readily observe predators. The shore’s gradual slope allows the birds to wade into the shallow water (2” inches to 10” depths) to roost.
Benbrook Lake
Figure 3. This photo shows an area that Whooping Cranes will not use as a roost site. The trees and bushes on the shore are too thick and tall. This site could be developed into a suitable “stopover area if, lake managers would cut back the trees near the shore back to a distance of about 100 feet. Fortunately however, Benbrook Lake currently has ample roosting areas for Whooping Cranes. Yet, as the Whooper population increases and additional habitats are needed, such sites are available for development.
Benbrook Lake
Figure 4. Holiday Park Campground area. This photo includes an open flight glide path and landing area. Once on the ground Whooping Cranes can detect any predators in the area. Then they can walk down gentle slopes into the shallow water area (2” to 10” depth). Foraging for food is available in the shallow water, grass areas and on shore. This is an excellent example of a “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes to use as a roost site. Farther along the shore there are other potential roost sites.

 

 

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Whooping Cranes in the Central Flyway

On December 6, 2017, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) hosted a webinar with the topic being “Whooping Cranes in the Central Flyway — Relevance for Military and Civil Works Projects During Migratory Stopover” Aaron Pearse (USGS) and Wade Harrell (USFWS) were the guest speakers.

The presentation covered recent USGS and USFWS research on Whooping Cranes, the current status of the migratory population in the Central Flyway, and about opportunities civil and military land managers have to support whooping crane habitat in the central flyway.

After some discussion and a few questions and answers, Friends Of The Wild Whoopers’s (FOTWW) President, Chester McConnell, discussed the work that FOTWW has done and continues to do on military installations and U.S Army Corps of Engineers lakes.

The entire webinar, including a Power Point presentation was recorded and can be viewed below. To hear Chester’s talk, you can listen to it beginning at the 1:02:20 mark.

~ Pam Bates – 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. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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Corps of Engineers Lakes Being Examined As Whooping Crane Stopover Habitat

By Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Many have asked us how the Friends of the Wild Whoopers’, (FOTWW) “stopover habitat” program is doing. We can say that since we started our program that it has been met with overwhelming interest and many positive accolades. What we are happy to see is that the military, reservations and Corps of Engineers are very enthusiastic and eager to provide suitable and healthy habit for our wild whooping cranes as they migrate along the Central Flyway.

stopover habitat
Whooping Crane stopover habitat with one juvenile and two adult Whooping Cranes. Photo by John Noll

FOTWW is hard at work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect and improve Corps’ lakes for Whooping Cranes “stopover habitat”. During their 2,500-mile migration from Canada to Texas the Whooping Cranes must stop and rest 15 to 20 times. Unfortunately this important habitat is being lost due to developments of various kinds. So FOTWW sought the Corps help. The Corps has over 100 large lakes in the migration corridor that wild Whooping Cranes use two times each year. So the Corps agreed to help and a Memorandum of Understanding has been developed between them and FOTWW.

Whooping Cranes have completed their fall migration from Wood Buffalo nesting area to Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. They normally stopover an average of about 10 to 20 times during their journey. They need to rest and feed occasionally during the 2,500 mile trip. Some of these birds stopover on Corps’ lakes and FOTWW believed many more will use the lakes once more habitats have been improved.

Corps lakes as potential stopover habitat

Chester McConnell, President of Friends of the Wild Whoopers’ is currently traveling to Corps lakes and making evaluations of their potential as stopover habitat. To date, he has visited Benbrook Lake, Lavon Lake Bardwell Lake and Granger Lakes in Texas. In Nebraska, he visited Harlan County Lake. And in Kansas he recently completed visits to Wilson Lake, Kanopolis Lake and Milford Lake. McConnell explained that he was pleasantly surprised at the currently excellent quality of some lake properties. And, he followed, “I believe that much more habitat can be greatly improved at very low costs.” FOTWW is committed to continue their cooperative project with the Corps to provide more habitat for the endangered Whoopers.

Stopover habitats already evaluated

FOTWW has already completed evaluations of Whooping Crane habitats on 31 U.S. military bases and 8 Indian Reservations. All had some good habitats but many needed improvements. FOTWW prepared evaluation reports with recommendations for improvements where needed.

Some of the wetland pond habitats on military bases and Indian Reservations will require minor management to suit the needs of Whoopers but the managers are up to the task advised McConnell. Military bases are legally required to have natural resources programs and the stopover project is completely compatible with the laws. Project leaders do not request base officials to do anything that would interfere with the military mission of the bases.

“Stopover places are just as important as wintering and nesting areas because Whooping Cranes can’t fly the entire 2,500 migration corridor in one trip,” McConnell explained.

Won’t you please consider helping?

If you would like to help us continue this on going project, would you please consider becoming a member/friend or making a donation to help our efforts and some of our expenses? You can either become a member/friend or you can send us a donation by check or PayPal. Please click here .

FOTWW is an all volunteer nonprofit organization and no one receives a salary, so all of your contributions go to help the only natural wild flock of Whooping Cranes remaining on earth.

Won’t you please consider helping us so we can help them?

Endangered, there is still time, but extinct is forever!

THANK YOU!

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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, April 7, 2017


Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Wade Harrell, – U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Whooping crane spring migration is in full swing. It has been another tremendous winter season here at Aransas NWR, but the whooping cranes are ready to get back up to Wood Buffalo National Park for another breeding season.

Whooping Crane Update
Whooping crane family flying over Aransas NWR. Photo by Chuck Hardin

As of yesterday, of 7 birds that have active satellite transmitters, 5 have departed Aransas NWR. Quivira NWR (Kansas) and surrounding areas seem to be a hotspot for stopovers this spring, with a group of 14 whooping cranes reported last week and a group of 8 reported this week as well as sightings of smaller groups. There have also been a number of whooping cranes reported in the Platte River in Nebraska and a number that have already made it to the Dakotas. Here in Texas, 2 marked whoopers were spotted on Ft. Hood Army Base this past week. The number of whooping cranes at Aransas will quickly dwindle over the next couple weeks. Spring migration is typically shorter in duration than fall migration, usually only taking about 30 days.

As soon as results from the Annual Whooping Crane Winter Abundance Survey are complete, we will post a summary on the Aransas NWR website.

Whooping Cranes on the Refuge

Whooping crane update
Whooping Cranes over Aransas NWR at sunset. Photo by Kevin Sims

Cranes have recently been seen from the observation tower on the Refuge, but it’s difficult to say how much longer they will remain. But there are many other interesting wildlife species to view at the Refuge now, including many spring migrating songbirds, so don’t hesitate to come out and enjoy other spring wildlife watching opportunities.

Texas Whooper Watch

Please report any whooping cranes you observe in migration in Texas to Texas Whooper Watch. We’ve had a number of people making use of the new Texas Whooper Watch I-Naturalist phone app as well, which is encouraging. The old saying “a photo is worth a thousand words” applies to reporting whooping cranes as well. Just be careful not to disturb or get too close the birds!

Habitat Management on the Refuge

Refuge staff burned 4 Units this winter, totaling 4,871 acres. This year’s winter season was challenging given that our cold weather windows with consistent north winds were limited and the latter part of the winter brought significant rains.

Precipitation/Salinity

The Refuge received 6.16” of rain from January-March 2017. Freshwater levels and food resources remained high throughout most of this winter season.  Salinity levels in San Antonio Bay stayed in the low teens (ppt) most of the winter, but recent rains in the middle portion of the Guadalupe river watershed have dropped salinities significantly this last week. Let’s hope we stay in a wet cycle for a bit longer.

***** 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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