Whooping Cranes Research Refuge at Patuxent

Prologue : Over the years the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center had performed an abundance of important research on whooping cranes and many other wildlife species. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is reproducing a recent article concerning Patuxent and whooping cranes that we believe will interest you. The article by the National Wildlife Refuge Association follows:

May 12, 2014

In April’s Flyer E-Newsletter we highlighted Patuxent Research Refuge and the uniqueness in its mission as the only refuge exclusively created to further wildlife research. Patuxent Research Refuge is the home of  the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and one of the highlighted research projects is a captive flock of whooping cranes, the continent’s tallest bird. The study is being conducted by USGS, but is done on refuge grounds .

Whooping Cranes at Patuxent Research Refuge | USGS
Whooping Cranes at Patuxent Research Refuge | USGS

In 1942, only 16 whooping cranes remained in the flock that annually migrates from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. An additional six cranes were located in Louisiana, bringing the total global population to just 22 individuals. Unfortunately, the Louisiana flock died out a few years later, so all the whooping cranes now alive derive from the original 16 birds from the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock. As of October 2013, an estimated 434 whooping cranes exist in the wild – a significant improvement – thanks in part to the captive breeding program at Patuxent.

How it all began

The captive flock at Patuxent began in 1966 with the arrival of a juvenile whooping crane, captured from the Canadian flock after it broke its wing. Patuxent had already been working with other endangered species, and had made plans to work on whooping cranes. It was a natural transition, and has turned out to be a success. Currently about 70 cranes are on the refuge, not including this year’s reproduction.

To read the complete article, click on the link:  Whooping Cranes at Patuxent Research Refuge.

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

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Whooping Crane Visits Regina, SK

Juvenile Whooping Crane Visits Regina, SK

Kim Mann from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada shared some interesting whooping crane information and photos with Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW). Now we will share Kim’s information with you. Kim wrote the following:

“On Sat May 3 2014, my sister and I were checking the grids south of Regina and Val spotted another Whooping Crane. The crane was standing in a field just beyond a slough full of Tundra Swans. He/she stayed for the day flipping over large clumps of vegetation, no doubt after any frogs hiding beneath. Unfortunately, the heat haze and strong winds made picture taking extremely difficult.  There is a good chance that later that day we spotted another 4 further south from the first individual but neither Val nor I could positively id those ones. They were just too far away and the heat haze too strong.” Kim and her sister referred to the juvenile whooper as “Junior”

juvenile whooping crane_1000x643

“Junior” enjoying Regina, SK. ~Photo above courtesy of Kim Mann


Kim sent FOTWW a video of her observations and explained:
“ Glad to hear that the video CD arrived.  This was only the second time I have used my camera to take a video.  We are actually very far from “Junior” and the pics/videos are taken with a 400mm telephoto. We have seen Junior tossing huge sods of grass on a couple of occasions.  We think he is trying to find tasty creatures under the sod, perhaps insects, frogs, snakes or rodents.

“Regina, near where the video/photos were taken is the capital of Saskatchewan and is about 150 miles north of the North Dakota border.  The ecoregion is moist mixed grassland prairie.  Junior has been located just south of Regina in farm fields, usually in or fairly close to a slough, sometimes with swans and other times alone.  Currently the fields are still fairly wet from the snow melt so the sloughs are fairly large.  Attached is a pic of Junior by a slough and you can see another in the background.  These sloughs are just up the road a tad from the slough that Junior was in snoozing with the swans. “

“Whooping cranes tend to fly over Regina and the surrounding area during migration and on occasion, land in rural farmer’s fields; however, it is not common for them to be seen on the ground in this particular area.  A friend that has worked with wildlife suggested that the unusually cold temperatures may be causing them to land more frequently.  Also the day in April that we saw the four whoopers had a storm front complete with strong winds moving in.  For whatever reason it has been an amazing spring for whooping crane sightings – we have seen (but not confirmed- heat haze made it impossible to be sure) at least nine different whoopers on separate occasions!”

Just a note: The whooping crane is the large bird in the background. The birds in the water are swans and ducks.

Juvenile Whooping Crane near Regina, SK. Video Courtesy of Kim Mann of SK.

FOTWW is very appreciative of Kim Mann for sharing her report. We love to get first-hand information from citizens who, like us, just love whooping cranes. So if any more of you Canadians and United States folks have whooping crane observations, please send them to us.

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

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Whooping Cranes Survived Many Adversities

Historical Troubles

Whooping cranes have struggled to survive various adversities since man came to the North American continent. First it was the American Indians who killed them and collected their eggs for food and feathers. It is believed however that the Indians did only minor harm because their hunting equipment was primitive.                                                  Territorial Dispute Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Problems increased tremendously for the whoopers after the Europeans migrated to the continent. The new settlers had guns and hunted the cranes for food. But their most damaging tools were their shovels, axes and plows. These tools were used to destroy millions of acres of whooping crane habitat. Settlers drained wetlands with their shovels, cleared forest with their axes and plowed the former wetlands and forest for agricultural purposes. Yet, with all the killing and habitat destruction some of the whoopers survived. Only 14 remained in the wild in 1940 but the population slowly increased to 304 in 2014.

Disaster in Galveston Bay

Fortunately, the majority of these endangered whooping cranes have made it through some serious adversities during the past decade. The most recent hazard was the barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel that dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. The spilled oil followed the Gulf of Mexico currents westward down the coast and reached the Matagorda Island unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Oil killed wildlife and damaged the environment in some of the gulf waters, wetlands, estuaries and beaches, but not on Aransas Refuge.

 A deceased bird as the result of the Galveston Oil Spill
Bird soaked in oil.

Hundreds of oil spill cleanup workers were deployed to Matagorda Island to remove the oil due to the presents of whooping cranes and other endangered wildlife. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team worked with great care scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels and removed it from the beach. Aransas Refuge Manager Sonny Perez advised Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) that “none of the oil got into the marshes or bay systems on Matagorda Island or any other part of the refuge.” However, on other areas of the Texas coast many other wild birds, turtles and porpoises were killed.

The latest information available from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service teams reported: “21 dolphins and 4 turtles stranded. Most of these are in the Galveston, TX area but reports from Matagorda Island are increasing. All of the dolphins were dead, two turtles were captured alive and are being rehabilitated. Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway. Approximately 150 dead birds have been reported in the Galveston area and 30 in the Matagorda area.” FOTWW has asked for a final tally of dead animals.

Oil Cleanup Completed? 

Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto told FOTWW that “cleanup of oil on Matagorda Island beach is completed but we are closely monitoring to determine if more oil washes onto the beach.” Prieto also advised, “We believe all of the whooping cranes have departed Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and are currently migrating on their way to their Canadian nesting grounds. We have not observes any whoopers on the refuge in several days”.

According to Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, “This season we documented four whooping crane mortalities on and around Aransas NWR.”  “ FOTWW understands that except for the four documented mortalities, all of the estimated 304 whooping cranes survived the winter on Aransas Refuge. Some of the whoopers have already reached Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada and will soon begin building their nests according John McKinnon, Wood Buffalo National Park. This is all great news for those who support the only remaining wild, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes on the planet.

Horror on the Gulf 

Whooping cranes dodged another even larger disaster known as the “BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill”.  In 2010 this horrific accident killed 11 people and spilled over four million barrels of oil into the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. While this disaster did not have any known effects on whooping cranes it did have catastrophic effect on other birds, fishes, porpoises, shell fish, turtles and other wildlife species.

Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.
Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.

The effect on bird populations in the area of the BP oil spill is just now being realized according to some. This week, the New York Times reported in “Still Counting Gulf Spill’s Dead Birds,” about a peer-reviewed study that estimates between 600,000 – 800,000 coastal water birds were killed in the first three months of the 2010 BP oil disaster1. According to the Times article, “This figure represents only a portion of the total bird mortality that occurred as a result of the spill. The study, which uses two different modeling techniques, is the first public estimate of a portion of bird mortality caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We know that the ecosystem is deeply damaged and will take years to begin to recover.”

Fortunately, whooping cranes have not been harmed by two of the largest oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in recent memory. FOTWW believes however that we must remain vigilant because a hurricane could possibly push some of the off shore submerged oil onto beaches and wetlands along the coast. And there is always the danger that some vessel loaded with oil or chemicals navigating along the Intracoastal Waterway could have an accident. The Intracoastal Waterway is located immediately adjacent to Aransas Refuge for about 17 miles.

Lingering Oil Worries 

Then there is the lingering worry about the abandoned and capped, but leaking oil and gas wells. According to an Associate Press news story “there are over 27,000 oil and gas wells within the Gulf of Mexico that have abandoned and have been capped to prevent the leakage of oil and gas from them. About 3,500 of these wells are oil and gas wells that have been “temporarily abandoned” and have been capped in a less stringent manner than other wells which were “permanently” capped.

Neither industry nor government checks for leaks at the oil and gas wells abandoned in the Gulf of Mexico since the late 1940s. Abandoned wells are known sometimes to fail both on land and offshore. It happens so often that a technical term has been coined for the repair job: “re-abandonment.” Collectively these wells may be allowing tremendous quantities of waste onto the gulf shores and causing harm to fish and wildlife.

Hurricane Threats 

Another major threat to whoopers and other wildlife on Aransas Refuge is hurricanes. In August of 1965 a major hurricane slammed into Matagorda Island causing significant damage. Mercifully the whooping cranes were still at Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting grounds getting ready for their southward migration. Increasingly, however, late-summer storms are occurring and may happen when whooping cranes have arrived on Aransas.

Aransas has both a “Hurricane Plan” and an “Oil Spill Plan” according to Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto. So, the refuge officials are at well informed on what course of actions they will take in case of emergencies. Such plans can reduce damages when emergencies occur.

Fresh Water Crisis Looms

“Drought is an ongoing major adversity for Aransas Refuge. The refuge has been short on rainfall for the past three years” advised Refuge Manager Sonny Perez.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact the onset of a prolonged drought in Texas in the fall of 2008 caused serious problems for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock. The Aransas Refuge gets much of its fresh water from the Guadalupe River. Fresh water maintains the salinity of the coastal wetlands and allows for the production of blue crabs, the whooping crane’s major winter food. The prolonged drought and the diversions of Guadalupe River water allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resulted in an increased salinity of water around the Aransas refuge. Tom Stehn, former U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator contends that the salinity changes devastated the local population of blue crabs and led to the death of at least 23 whooping cranes during the winter of 2008–09.

Dr. Paul A Johnsgard, professor emeritus University of Nebraska-Lincoln wrote an in-depth article titled, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat. He wrote: “Given the recent warming and drying climate trend in the Great Plains, and consequent increased losses of wetlands, the future of the Wood Buffalo Park–Aransas flock of whooping cranes is still by no means secure. However, without the establishment of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge at a critical time, the species would almost certainly have been added to the dismal list of twentieth-century North American bird extinctions including the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and Eskimo curlew.”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

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

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Whooping Crane Conservation topic for Audubon Meeting

Whooper adult and juvenile amazed

Friends of the Wild Whoopers member, Chester McConnell will present a program on “Whooping Cranes Conservation Efforts” at the Mobile Bay Audubon Society meeting according to Gaye Lindsey (Audubon birding coordinator). McConnell explained that his presentation will focus on management efforts for the wild whooping crane flock that migrates between Aransas Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo Park nesting grounds in Canada.

In addition he will discuss the two experimental flocks in the eastern U.S.   Operation Migration’s ultra-lite plane led whooping cranes fly through the entire length of Alabama on their migration path from Wisconsin to Florida. Many citizens turn out along the migration corridor to observe this most interesting effort.

Threats to the whooping crane programs including oil spills and wind energy projects will also be described.

McConnell said, “The last wild whooping cranes to be recorded in Alabama was on Dauphin Island and Prattville during November 1899 but many people continue to be interested in these beautiful  endangered birds.” Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America and stand 5 feet tall and have wing spans of 7 feet.

Audubon’s meeting will be at Alabama’s 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center , Spanish Fort, Alabama on Tuesday, May 13 starting at 7:00 p.m. Ms. Lindsey explained that this will be an excellent presentation which is open to the public.

To learn more about Friends of The Wild Whoopers organization click on: FOTWW

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

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