Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 1, 2018

Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 1, 2018
Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Fall migration is upon us and we expect to have our first confirmed whooping crane in the area later this month! We have received a few unconfirmed reports of a few whooping cranes in Texas already, but have yet to receive a report with a photo or full description. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look here.  Many early fall observations of whooping cranes end up being American White Pelicans or Wood Storks, though both of these species usually arrive in Texas before whooping cranes and are often observed in larger flocks.

Cold and wet conditions early this summer contributed to a below-average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP).  Eighty-seven nests were counted in May, producing an estimated 24 fledged whooping cranes (counted in August) that are now headed south on their first migration to Texas. It is likely that lower than normal chick survival was due in part to exposure to the wet, cold conditions. We know from historical records that we see a dip in chick recruitment and the population size about once a decade, and we may be witnessing that pattern again this year.

The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take as many as 50 days to complete. Right now, 9 of 11 of the whooping cranes that are alive from recent marking efforts in summer of 2017 and last winter have moved south out of WBNP and are in Central Saskatchewan. Three of these birds were marked as juveniles at WBNP and 6 were marked as adults here at Aransas NWR. It is common for whooping cranes to spend a long period of time in Saskatchewan this time of year, “staging” for fall migration by foraging on abundant agricultural waste grains. Our partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service are actively monitoring whooping cranes in Saskatchewan now and have reported seeing several of our marked birds.

We have not received any migration reports from the U.S. portion of the Central Flyway yet, nor have any reports surfaced via eBird, Texas Whooper Watch, or other citizen science sites. Thus, it is likely that few, if any, whooping cranes have crossed the 49th parallel just yet. Once northern cold fronts become stronger, the pace of migration will increase.

Texas Whooper Watch

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch. For instructions on how to report, please refer to this website.

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance:

September was definitely one for the record books, with at least 17.54” of rain reported at Aransas NWR. This is around half of our average annual rainfall, and as you can imagine it has created fresh conditions in the coastal marshes and standing water across large portions of the Refuge. Since June, we have recorded 36.19” of rain and the National Weather Service 3-month outlook suggests that the fall weather pattern will continue to be wetter and warmer than normal. Generally, wet periods bode well for whooping crane foods in the marsh such as blue crabs and wolfberries.

Habitat Management at Aransas:

We were able to burn one large unit (3,780 acres) on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies adjacent to coastal marsh areas that are heavily used by whooping cranes. By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that would not normally be available to the whooping cranes. Summer burns are typically more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, and thus are an important habitat management tool at Aransas NWR.

Refuge Celebration October 13:

I hope you will come join us at Aransas NWR on Saturday, October 13, from 9 am to 3 pm for the annual Refuge Day Celebration and participate in a number of free, family-friendly activities that we have planned – archery, fishing, kayaking, target shooting, live animal displays, arts and crafts, nature journaling, photo scavenger hunt, face painting, and more!

 

***** 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.

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
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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”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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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Whitney Lake – Corps of Engineers’ Jewel for Whooping Cranes

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” are increasing in importance on Corps of Engineer lakes according to Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW). Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist explains that, “due to numerous land use changes on private lands, many wetlands and ponds that once served as Whooping Crane habitat are being drained and converted to other uses. So the large Corps of Engineer lakes are being used more and more by the cranes.”

Mostly, during migration Whooping Cranes “stopover” on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to eat and rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, feed, rest and then continue their journey. Importantly, Whoopers are compatible with other wildlife and briefly share their habitats. Ensuring that sufficient areas with the proper conditions as stopover sites are available is important for the survival of the species. Sensible practices applied by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.

FOTWW’s evaluations continue

FOTWW is continuing its evaluations of Corps lakes to identify areas with good Whooper habitat; habitats that need improvements; and areas that can be developed into good habitat. McConnell reasons that: “Corps lakes are federally owned and, if we can design projects that do not interfere with the Corps mission, then projects that help endangered Whooping Cranes should be authorized. Land cost are the major expense in such projects and using federal lands would eliminate that cost.”

Whitney Lake visited

McConnell visited Whitney Lake on April 12, 2018 to assess potential habitats for Whooping Cranes. Michael Champagne, USACE – Natural Resources Specialist, Fort Worth District made arrangements for our trip. Nickolus Mouthaan, Park Ranger led us on a tour of the lake to examine all potential places that could provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Brandon Mobley, Natural Resource Specialist, Fort Worth District Office participated in the tour. We discussed the natural resource objectives for Whitney Lake and needs for management (Figure 1).

Whitney Lake
Figure 1. Brandon Mobley, Natural Resource Specialist, Fort Worth District Office (on left) and Nickolus Mouthaan, Park Ranger (right) joined Chester McConnell, FOTWW during evaluation of “stopover habitats” on Whitney Lake. These men are standing on a broad expanse of grassland adjacent to a large lake inlet in H-10 Hunting Area. This is an excellent area to serve as “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Any cranes choosing to stopover here would have a wide glide path to land on the lake shore. The site is clear of obstructions and provides a gradual slope into the shallow water which is 2 to 10 inches deep in the roost area. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good and allows the Whoopers to spot any predator that may be lurking nearby. Whoopers can feed on aquatic animal in the lake and forage on insects and grains in nearby fields.

About Whitney Lake

Whitney Lake was authorized by the Flood Control Acts of August 18, 1941 to provide flood control, hydroelectric power, water conservation for domestic and industrial uses, recreation and other beneficial water uses. The lake is located along the county lines of Hill and Bosque Counties on the main stem of the Brazos River. It encompasses a total of 49,820 acres and has a flood capacity of 1,372,400 acre-feet of water. At elevation 533 feet above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the normal pool level, the lake covers 23,560 acres and has a capacity of 627,100 acre feet.

Approximately 13,500 acres of government-owned land surrounding the lake are dedicated as natural areas. Primarily used for flood storage, this land is also intended for low impact public use with a minimum of facilities provided. The lake’s large size and diverse habitat support a number of native and introduced species of fish. The lake is a common stopping, resting and feeding area for Whooping Cranes, ducks, geese, shore birds and other waterfowl. This same land is primarily where FOTWW has recommended projects to increase benefits for Whooping Cranes (Figure 2).

Whitney Lake
Figure 2. This shore area on Whitney Lake is clear of obstructions and vegetation is short due partially to fluctuations in lake water levels. Any nearby predators could be easily detected. The water is shallow (2 to 10 inches) making it an excellent roost area. Overall it is an excellent Whooping Crane “stopover site”.

 

***** 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’ 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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