Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat
“Perhaps no North American species of bird has come closer to extinction and yet managed to survive into the twenty-first century than has the whooping crane.”
In his article, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat“, published in the “Prairie Fire“, Paul A Johnsgard, foundation professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and author of over 50 books on natural history, writes in depth about the last remaining natural wild flock of whooping cranes’ determination and vulnerabilities to survive. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has been the whooping cranes’ winter retreat since the beginning of time and throughout the years, just as the wild ones have had to endure setbacks, so has the refuge.
To read Paul A Johnsgard‘s article, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat”, click here.
Crew members work to remove oil on the beaches of the National Seashore Park on Apr. 1 following the Galveston Bay oil spill in Texas. Whooping crane advocates expressed concern after hearing reports of heavy machinery being used in the cleanup effort.
An advocacy group for the protection of endangered whooping cranes says it’s “very concerned” about the impacts of a tanker spill in Texas that resulted in 168,000 gallons of oil being dumped into Galveston Bay, less than 300 km from where the birds overwinter.
Oil globs as large as basketballs began washing up on Matagorda Island last week, an area of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where whooping cranes spend the winter season before heading to their northern breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park.
A sizeable operation has been launched by the US Coast Guard to clean up the spill, which happened on Mar. 22 when an oil tanker collided with another ship in the bay, but some are expressing concern that the effects of the cleanup could be devastating to the fragile crane population in the middle of migration.
Chester McConnell, one of the advocates behind Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW), told The Journal his concern stems from what he sees as a lack of concern for the cranes and other endangered species by the cleanup crew.
“The intensive cleanup efforts were doing the job for other needs associated with the beaches and were not too concerned about wildlife,” he said.
FOTWW, along with other conservation groups, made significant noise after hearing reports of heavy equipment and machinery being used early in the cleanup process.
Last week, their outcry made some headway when it was confirmed that cleanup crews will switch to hand tools and equipment that has a “light touch” in areas sensitive to wildlife.
“As of today, our concerns have subsided a bit,” McConnell said in an email Friday.
Lessons to be learned
The whooping cranes are currently in the middle of a staggered migration period that will eventually see the entire population leave Texas and make its way through the US to their summer home in Wood Buffalo.
According to observers, around 25 per cent of the population has already begun migration.
While immediate concern about the safety of whooping cranes has eased, McConnell said it’s important for leaders and politicians to reflect on how they will respond to future emergency environmental threats.
“Those of us interested in whooping cranes have been concerned for many years that something like this oil spill would occur. There is much boat traffic that goes immediately by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Any of these vessels loaded with oil, chemicals, etc. are a serious threat,” he said.
“Plans need to be developed specifically for the Aransas Refuge vicinity to respond to any future emergencies. Equipment and supplies need to be on call so immediate attention can be directed to any future catastrophe near Aransas Refuge.”
Reports from US media last week confirmed that hundreds of birds were killed by oil from the Galveston spill, a close call for the endangered whooping crane population of less than 300.
“The whooping cranes that use Aransas are the only wild flock remaining on the planet. They are the crown jewels and all other efforts to restore whooping cranes in other locations are dependent on these birds,” McConnell said.
Oil spill clean-up: Ten tons removed from Matagorda Island
KHOU 11 News
by Doug Miller
khou.com, Posted on April 8, 2014 at 12:11 AM
Updated today at 9:57 AM
MATAGORDA ISLAND — Amid one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in America, a place where birds almost always outnumber the few humans venturing to a remote island, workmen are now hauling away tons of beach sand contaminated by oil.
Men wearing protective suits scratch at the sand on Matagorda Island, using shovels to unearth the layer of oil lingering beneath a thin film of freshly deposited sand.
“Right,” says George Degener, a U.S. Coast Guard petty officer. “We want to remove as much contaminated debris as we can, but still leave as much clean sand in the area as we possibly can.”
More than two weeks have passed since a barge carrying oil collided with another vessel at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, triggering a spill that shut down traffic flowing into the Port of Houston and coated an unknown number of birds in oil during their migratory season. But the consequences of that accident are still evident along the Texas coastline, on distant shores like Matagorda Island.
Oil washed ashore along 24 miles of the island’s beaches, leaving black stains not only in the sand but also on debris like logs. Coast Guard spokesmen say all but about four miles have since been cleaned by workers who’ve removed more than 10 tons of contaminated soil and contaminated debris.
Most of the oil has dried out, in some places developing into patches looking like asphalt on the beach. But some of it still glistens in pools.
“As the oil settled and tide brought in layers of sand over it, it’s dried out,” Degener says. “And it’s become almost asphalt-like. As it lays in, the toxins will evaporate and the oil will actually harden. So that’s what they’re trying to remove right now.”
Unlike the heavily developed beaches in Galveston where the oil spill originated, Matagorda Island is almost entirely vacant land where birds are more common than people. As part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, it is the winter home to the world’s largest flock of endangered whooping cranes.
This spill has washed ashore not only at a bad place, but also at a bad team. Ridley sea turtles are expected to begin crawling out of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing the beaches and laying their eggs in the grassy dunes.
“One of the challenges for wildlife in this situation is that we have a lot of migrating birds,” said Nancy Brown, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “And this includes whooping cranes. Whooping cranes are about to begin their migration. And migration is an incredibly dangerous time for a bird.”
So far, none of the oil has turned up on the bay side of the island around the whooping crane habitat. But wildlife experts are still worried that all the activity surrounding the cleanup will somehow affect the migration of the rare birds, which are accustomed to spending their winters on a virtually deserted island.
“There are more people on this island right now than there are whooping cranes in existence in the world,” Brown said. “So we’re very concerned about that. And we’re working as part of this effort to try minimize the impact to that highly endangered bird.”
The Coast Guard says Kirby Inland Marine, which owns the barge from which the oil spilled, is paying for the cleanup. Nobody knows how much it will cost, a company spokesman says, because nobody knows how long the cleanup will take.