Estimated Texas Wintering Whooping Crane Population Breaks 500

U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Date:  August 21, 2018

Contact:  Wade Harrell, 361/676-9953 wade_harrell@fws.gov

Beth Ullenberg, 505/248-6638 beth_ullenberg@fws.gov

Estimated Texas Wintering Whooping Crane Population Breaks 500

Whooping Crane Population
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kevin Sims®

Survey accuracy improved with shift from December to February timeframe

The first winter after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, an estimated 505 whooping cranes arrived on their Texas wintering grounds after migrating 2,500 miles from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.  Each fall the birds make their way back to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding habitats, where they spend the winter.  Once they have arrived, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey the birds by air and analyze population trends.

Biologists have completed analysis of aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population done last winter.  A switch in aircraft the previous winter and a shift to surveying later in the winter when a larger proportion of the population had arrived helped improve accuracy of the counts.  Preliminary data analysis indicated 505 whooping cranes, including 49 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas. An additional 21 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 6th year in a row that the population has increased in size and the first time the population has topped the 500 mark.

“Breaking the 500 mark for this wild population is a huge milestone”, stated Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “Seeing this iconic bird continue to expand demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can help a species recover from the brink of extinction.  I have to credit our biologists and our partners and local communities who continue to invest so much time and effort to improve our ability to make sure future generations have the chance to marvel at the beauty of these amazing wild birds.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented several small changes that have greatly improved the agency’s capacity to survey the birds. “After two years of testing a shift of our December survey timeframe to later in the winter, we believe our previous survey estimates were likely low given that not all the whooping cranes had completed migration by mid-December. We had indications of a later than expected fall migration over the last several years via migration reports and telemetry data. This is the first year that we have based our winter abundance estimate from a February survey timeframe rather than a December timeframe. It may seem like population numbers jumped more than usual, but in reality we are just capturing a more complete proportion of the population, with most birds having completed migration by early February” stated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Wade Harrell.

Harrell said biologists will continue to conduct flights in late January and early February for future surveys.  He also stated that staff at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge continue to make progress in recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Harvey.  “The good news is that the coastal marsh that supports our wintering whooping cranes was not significantly damaged by the hurricane and recovered quickly from any impacts, demonstrating how resilient intact wetland habitats can be.”

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in North America and are highly endangered. Cranes have been documented to live more than 30 years in the wild.   Adults generally reach reproductive age at four or five years, and then lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick.

More information about the survey and whooping cranes can be found on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge website at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/ or by calling the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Contact Station at: (361) 349-1181.

To read an in depth report of the survey results in PDF format, click here.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.

 For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov. Connect with our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/usfws, follow our tweets at www.twitter.com/usfwshq, watch our YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq.

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Environmental deterioration at Wood Buffalo National Park is widespread, federal study finds

“Friends of the Wild Whoopers has read the following article about Wood Buffalo National Park and it is disturbing. Over the past couple of years we have read other stories claiming serious environmental problems on or near Wood Buffalo. We have been advised by Canadian officials that these problems do not affect the endangered Whooping Crane nesting area. Now we are hearing otherwise. We will continue to monitor the situation and seek the truth.

The environmental deterioration described in the following reports reminds me of the tremendous problems that have been caused over many years to the Mississippi River ecosystem  by United States government agencies.

Chester McConnell President
Friends of the Wild Whoopers”
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The 561-page report on Wood Buffalo National Park says industry, dams, climate change and natural cycles are sucking the watery lifeblood from the vast delta of northeastern Alberta’s Peace and Athabasca rivers.

Read more here.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park

***** 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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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Friends of the Wild Whoopers agree to assist in the recovery of endangered whooping cranes

Washington (July 10, 2018) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced today the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Friends of the Wild Whoopers to assist in the recovery of endangered whooping cranes.

Per the MOU, USACE and Friends of the Wild Whoopers will jointly assess whooping crane migration stopover habitat at USACE water resources development projects. The assessments will be used by USACE to develop work plans that maintain and improve existing habitat and create additional habitat for this critically endangered bird as part of USACE Environmental Stewardship Program.

U.S.Army Corps of Engineers
A flock of whooping cranes stop to feed and rest in a field at the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, Kanopolis Lake during their fall migration. In 2017, conservation efforts in the U.S. and Canada have seen the population increase to an estimated 431 birds. (Photo by U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District)

The whooping crane is one of the most endangered bird species in the world and is commonly seen as America’s symbol of conservation. Standing 5 feet tall with a wing span of 7 feet, it is the largest bird in North America.

Once fairly common, the species was reduced to just 16 birds by 1943. Market hunting and indiscriminate shooting along with habitat loss led to the decline of the species. Conservation efforts in the United States and Canada have seen the population increase to an estimated 431 birds in 2017.

This partnership is consistent with USACE’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, which states that federal agencies may use their existing authorities to assist in the recovery of listed species.

Read more here.

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Whooping Crane Nest Survey on Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

A total of 86 Whooping Crane nests were located during the 2018 nesting survey on Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), Canada according to Rhona Kindopp, Manager of Resource Conservation, Parks Canada.

Whooping crane nest survey results

Kindopp explained: “We have a preliminary count of 86 nests, the second highest number ever recorded. Last year we set a record with 98 nests. We don’t count recently hatched chicks as part of this survey because we do a survey of fledged chicks each August. We are encouraged by the significant number of nests established this year. The previous record was 98 in 2017 and the before that it was 82 in 2014. We are seeing a large, relatively stable number of nests over the past few years, and the variance in the numbers of nests is within the normal range. We believe this bodes well for the ongoing health of the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Whooping Crane flock and we look forward to seeing the results when we count chicks later in the season.”

The next survey will be conducted in September to count the number of juvenile Whooping Cranes that hatched and survived.

WBNP’s central role

Notably, Kindopp pointed out that: “As the last natural whooping crane nesting habitat is under our stewardship, we play a central role in the nesting survey and in the fledgling survey that takes place later in the summer. Sharon Irwin, WBNP Resource Conservation Officer, WBNP Ecologist Lori Parker and John Conkin of the Canadian Wildlife Service took part in the survey, which was carried out May 25-29 for a total of 5 days.

The vast wetlands in northern Wood Buffalo National Park are the whooping cranes’ nesting area. They build their nests alongside the shallow ponds that contain the frogs and insects they feed on throughout the summer. There, the nesting pairs will raise one or occasionally two chicks which must then make the long trip back to Texas in the fall.

Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Conducting the survey

Kindopp described the survey procedure: “The survey is carried out by flying in a helicopter in a grid pattern over last year’s nest locations. If we don’t find a nest on a grid search we then fly to the old nest site and fly ever widening circles around site.  We also have recent locations for satellite banded birds to check.”

“The water levels in the ponds of the nesting area are good and overall habitat conditions look very positive this year. Clearly, the crane have found nesting conditions very favorable. Nesting started a bit later than usual this year because of cold temperatures.” according to Kindopp.

whooping crane
Figure 1. Whooping Crane sitting on nest. Note crane in center of photo. ©Parks Canada / Wood Buffalo National Park.

Due to the remote location of their nesting grounds and its inaccessibility to humans, the cranes are fairly secure while they are in the park. They face more challenges in their migration corridor through Canada and the United States due to habitat loss. We work with conservation agencies in the United States to monitor the progress of the cranes and share data on the state of their habitat.

Whooping crane life

Whooping Cranes live a hurried life during their reproduction period. When the nesting birds (5 years of age and older) leave their winter habitats on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast they seem to be in a rush. Spring migration periods from Aransas to Wood Buffalo are quicker than the fall migrations that travel south. The belief is that the nesters are in a rush to get to their nesting grounds so they can nest and rear their chicks during the short summer period available in their northern range.

Wild Whooping Cranes have now settled down on Wood Buffalo. They arrived there during late April and May after migrating 2,500 miles from Aransas Refuge on the Texas coast. Each nesting pair located their nesting site which is normally in the same general area as past years. Park records show that several pairs have nested in the same areas for 22 consecutive years. Soon after their arrival on their nesting grounds, they build their nest.

Nesting territories for Whooper pairs vary in size but average about 1,500 acres. They guard their territories. Nesting neighbors typically locate their nest at least one-half mile away. Nests are normally constructed in shallow water with vegetation from the local area.

Wild Whooping Cranes nesting information

According to several research reports, eggs are typically laid in late April to mid-May. Normally two eggs are laid but infrequently only one and rarely three have been observed in nests. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid and continues for about 30 days. Since incubation starts when the first egg is laid, the first chick hatched is about two days older than the second hatched. This variance in age is significant and creates problem for the younger chick. It is weaker than the older chick and has difficulty keeping up as the adults move around searching for food. The younger chick often dies due to its weakness. Records indicate that only about 10% to 15% of the second chicks hatched survive. Importantly, the second egg plays an important role in providing insurance that at least one chick survives.

From the time Whoopers begin egg laying until their chicks are a few months old, the family groups remain in their breeding territory. They feed there and don’t move long distances until after their chicks fledge.

Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016 are shown in the graph below.

whooping crane
Figure 2. Nest survey results for the period 1966 to 2016.
whooping cranes
Figure 3. Sass River – Whooping Crane nesting grounds. Photo by John D. McKinnon
whooping crane
Figure 4. Whooping Crane on nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada.
Photo by Klaus Nigge

Parks Canada is a recognized leader in conservation. Through its Conservation and Restoration Program, Parks Canada takes actions to preserve national parks and contribute to the recovery of species-at-risk. Canada’s network of protected areas play an important role by protecting and restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems and contributing to the recovery of species at risk.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers will publish an update of the ongoing Whooping Crane chick reproduction and related activities soon.

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