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.

 

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Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes

To our Canadian followers. If you’re in the Saskatoon, SK area on Thursday, January 17th, why not check out Mark Bidwell’s presentation “Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes” put on by Saskatoon Nature Society. The public is welcome and it starts at 7:30 PM. The presentation will be held in Room 1130, Health Sciences E-wing, University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.

Mark specializes in endangered species and he is responsible for whooping crane research and conservation. In his talk he will discuss the current status of whooping cranes and what we know about their behaviour and movements during the breeding season and on their migration through Saskatchewan. Finally he will talk about what can be done to conserve cranes and their habitats.

Again, everyone is welcome and it is free to attend! For more information go to www.saskatoonnaturesociety.sk.ca/

Whooping Crane
Somewhere in Saskatchewan. Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann
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KAW LAKE, OK – Whooping Crane “Stopover Habitat”

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

So, as the New Year of 2019 arrives, what is Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) doing for the Whooping Cranes? We are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Yep, not sexy but it is the most important need of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population which is the last remaining wild whooping cranes on Earth.

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo wild 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.

FOTWW wildlife biologist Chester McConnell visited several lakes in Oklahoma recently to evaluate the potential for “stopover habitat” for migrating wild Whooping Cranes. One of these was Kaw Lake.

Our visit to Kaw Lake

Well, it rained for three days causing the lake to be in flood stage 8 feet above normal pool. So the high flood waters prevented a complete evaluation of potential “stopover’ habitat for the Whoopers. Not to be out done, FOTWW’s McConnell and Corps of Engineers Kaw Lake personnel did the best they could under the circumstances.

With the assistance of Hutch Todd, Kaw Lake Biologist and Peat Robinson, Kaw Lake Manager, FOTWW studied satellite photos made during past years when the lake pool was at normal pool level.. Using this process, we were pleased to learn about the three excellent potential sites that can be protected and managed to provide some important “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes.

There appears to be few stopover habitats for Whooping Cranes on Kaw Lake’s main pool but the upstream river that flows into the lake has many sandbars that have some good sites (Figures 1 and 2). The lake’s main pool shore areas are mostly steep with abundant trees growing close to the lake edge. These conditions do not lend themselves to stopover habitat for Whooping Cranes.

FOTWW’s McConnell advised that, “We did identify three areas with good potential stopover habitat. These are important and we encourage Kaw Lake personnel to protect and manage them carefully. The three stopover areas can provide diversity to stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes and many waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and other wildlife species that need wetlands.”

Location of existing “stopover sites”

The photos (Figs. 1 and 2) illustrate three potential “stopover areas” on Kaw Lake and upstream where endangered Whooping Cranes can rest, forage and roost during their two annual migrations. The size and configuration of these stopover areas vary with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas at the three sites need some management to clear bushes, trees and other obstructions. Horizontal visibility from the shore and water roost sites allows Whooping Cranes to detect predators that may be in the area. The shore and lake edge at the three sites has some gradual slopes and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches available during “normal” lake water levels. The water is clear and supports abundant aquatic life. Foraging is available on USACE property and in numerous nearby agriculture fields. In addition there are wild foods in adjacent managed grasslands and wetlands that provide an abundance of insects, wild seeds and other wild food.

Recommendations

FOTWW recommended that the Corps of Engineers and OWDC managers should focus on protecting all potential stopover sites that we identified. These areas currently appear to have good “stopover habitats” with safe roosting features and nearby agricultural landscapes that provide foraging opportunities.

FOTWW sincerely appreciates the interest and cooperation of Kaw Lake and Tulsa District personnel and other officials of the Corps of Engineers who cooperated with us and provided documents that assisted in our evaluation. And a special thanks to David Hoover, USACE who arranged our field trips to four lakes in Oklahoma.

Kaw Lake, Oklahoma
Figure 1. This photo is a close up of the sandbar in Figure 3. It shows the current open area (white) where Whooping Cranes could stopover and the trees that need to be cleared.
Kaw Lake, Oklahoma
Figure 2. The sandbars in this photo are several river miles upstream of the larger sandbars in Figure 3. Marker number “1”is a wide sandbar clear of vegetation. Whooping Cranes could land here and locate shallow water available where they could roost. The sandbar at marker number “2” can also be developed into another good stopover site if the shrubs and trees identified by the arrows are cleared by cutting, burning or spraying with an appropriate herbicide.
KAW LAKE, OKLAHOMA
Figure 3. The sandbars at the head of Kaw Lake can serve as an excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes during their migrations. The island formed as upstream banks of the Arkansas River eroded and the sand washed downstream until it met with slack waters of the lake. At this point the sand dropped out of the river water column to form the island. These islands will need management to control growth of trees and shrubs. These can be controlled by spraying with appropriate herbicides or mechanical means.

***** 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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Future Whooping Crane Island Habitat on Canton Lake, Oklahoma

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats as time goes by. During their 2,500 mile migration from their Canadian nesting area to their Texas wintering habitat they must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Dwindling wetlands

Private lands have traditionally provided most of the “stopover habitats” but many of these properties are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming. So, what can we do to help? Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contends that lands and waters on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) lakes, military base wetlands and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Many of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife…

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 21 USACE lakes within the wild Whooping Crane migration corridor. Some of these properties currently have suitable stopover wetland habitats while other areas could be enhanced with minor work.

USACE lakes within the 6 state migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Canton Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable.

Canton Lake, Oklahoma

Canton Lake contains 7,910 acres of surface water and 14,861 acres of public hunting land that is managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). This area is open year round, except for the migratory bird refuge which is closed annually from 15 October to 15 February. Canton Lake’s purpose is to provide flood risk management, water supply, fish and wildlife conservation and recreation.  Since its impoundment more than 60 years ago, it has been enjoyed by millions of people. The lake offers extensive opportunity for outdoor recreation activities.

FOTWW is aware that Canton Lake, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. Both USACE and ODWC personnel have observed Whooping Cranes on the lake several times.

As FOTWW Wildlife Biologist, I visited Canton Lake on October 10, 2018 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE made arrangements for our trip. George Mayfield, Assistant Lake Manager and Chase Kokojan, ODWC participated in the lake stopover habitat evaluation. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Canton Lake we made a tour of the lake property by vehicle to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We identified several potential stopover habitat areas one of which is described below.

Canton Lake
Figure 1. Satellite photo of island at western end of Canton Lake. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. Additional treatments may be necessary to maintain the vegetation at a height height of 2 feet or less. Whooping Cranes require areas where they can readily observe predators such as coyotes and bobcats.

 

Canton Lake
Figure 2. This photo displays the land base at the boat ramp, the cattail and phragmites plants and the island (same as in Fig. 1) in the background. If managed properly the island and shore area can become excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wild creatures. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. A second treatment may be necessary to get the areas described in good condition.

DESCIPTION OF POTENTIAL “STOPOVER HABITATS”:

The photos (Figs.1 and 2 are potential “stopover habitats” for endangered Whooping Cranes to rest and roost. The island is located in an isolated location and not near frequently travel roads or power lines. The size and configuration of the wetland area varies with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were approximately 1.5 feet higher than “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas and island are essentially clear of bushes and trees. Horizontal visibility from the island and shore roost sites, if properly managed, would allow Whooping Cranes to detect any predators that may be in the area. The slope of the shore and lake edge is gradual and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches would be available during “normal” lake water levels. There is little emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at these roost sites. The locations are 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Hundreds of acres of foraging areas are located on ODWC wildlife food plots and in nearby agriculture fields. In addition there are wild foods in adjacent managed grasslands and wetlands that provide an abundance of insects, wild seeds and other wild food.

 

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

***** 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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