“Stopover Habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes and military bases

May 12, 2019

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are receiving significant awareness and interest about their habitat needs in Texas and other states. It’s happening on Corps of Engineer (COE) lakes and military bases throughout Texas. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) have recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional Corps lakes. This brings the total assessments in Texas to fifteen lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

FOTWW’s focus on “stopover habitat”.

FOTWW is often asked, what is the organization doing for Whooping Cranes? Our answer is that we are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. During past years, most interest in Whooping Crane habitat has focused on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Aransas Refuge is the wintering habitat and Wood Buffalo is the nesting habitat for the cranes.

Importantly, Whooping Cranes spend 8 to 10 weeks migrating from their Wood Buffalo nesting grounds to their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge winter habitat. They cannot fly the total 2,500 mile distance without stopping to feed and rest. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

Unfortunately, relatively little interest has focused on “stopover habitat” where the Whoopers stop to rest and feed every night during migration. These stopover locations are scattered all along the 2,500 mile long migration corridor between Aransas Refuge and Wood Buffalo. Chester McConnell, FOTWW’s wildlife biologist stresses that “stopover habitats” are absolutely necessary and the Whooping Crane population could not exist without these areas. Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats.”

Habitat Importance

McConnell explains that, “Habitat is the most important need of the endangered Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane population. It is the only remaining wild, self-sustaining Whooping Crane population on planet Earth. The Aransas-Wood Buffalo 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.” So FOTWW is dedicated to protecting and managing existing and potential stopover habitat where we can.

FOTWW has very little funding assistance and decided to work with government agencies and Indian tribes who own land distributed all along the migration corridor from North Dakota to Texas. Land is the most expensive item and the Corps, military and Indian tribes already own thousands of acres. McConnell met with these land owners and explained the habitat needs of Whooping Cranes and how they could contribute without interfering with their normal missions. Fortunately, there was exceptional support and FOTWW has been working on the mission for over three years.

McConnell explained that he uses 85 percent of his working time traveling to meet with government land managers and Indian tribe natural resource managers. He instructs them on needs of endangered Whooping Cranes and importantly, he also evaluates their wetland habitats and prepare management plans to guide them to successfully manage their “stopover habitats”.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Proctor Lake, Stillhouse Hollow Lake, Belton and Lake Georgetown recently to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our visit and is a major supporter of FOTWW efforts. Park Ranger Todd Spivey led us on an in-depth tour of Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lake that allowed us to evaluate areas that are difficult to visit. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable habitat evaluation official visit

The following photos and descriptions will assist readers to understand our work.

Figure 1: A three person team traveled by boat to numerous potential “stopover habitats” in Stillhouse Hollow Lake and Belton Lakes that wild Whooping Cranes could use during their two annual migrations. The team was evaluating the usefulness of the various locations as potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Many good sites were observed that can be easily developed and managed. (Identification from left to right: Chester McConnell, President, Friends of the Wild Whoopers; Todd Spivey, USACE Park Ranger, Stillhouse Hollow Lake; and Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
stopover habitat
Figure 2. This is an excellent location for a Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” onStillhouse Lake, TX. Glide paths (arrows) for Whooping Cranes landing area is clear of obstructions and provides a gradual slope into the shallow water. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The area opening in the bushes from the field to water is about 60 feet wide and provides a satisfactory place for Whooping Cranes to move to the water to roost without obstructions. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging
stopover habitat
Figure 3. This photo shows a potentially exceptional “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes on Stillhouse Lake, TX. The glide path for Whooping Cranes landing is clear of obstructions. Gradual or gentle slopes provide good entrance into the lake where water is shallow from 2 inches to 10 inches deep in roost area. The “orange block” shows location of area 50 feet long that needs all bushes cleared so Whooping Cranes can move from the field to water without fear of hiding predators. No trees are in or near landing site. Horizontal visibility around the roost site is good so any predators could be observed. Whoopers can forage on insects and grains in the field and aquatic animal in the lake. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. The site is 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Agricultural grain fields or pasture land within one mile of stopover site could be used for foraging.
stopover habitat
Figure 4. This Belton Lake location is one of the better sites that we observed to serve as a potential “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Flight glide paths are clear from all directions. The few obstructions at the landing site can be easily removed by applying a chemical brush killer. There are few thick stands of bushes or trees in or near landing site and these can be remove relatively easy. FOTWW believes a chemical brush killer that kills bushes above ground, the roots underground and stumps is the preferred method to use. Clipping bushes above ground or pulling them up will leave many of the roots in place and they will soon sprout back.  ~ The gradual or gentle slopes into lakes where water is shallow is necessary for Whooping Crane roosting sites. This is the condition we observed here. The birds select lakes/ponds/wetlands with some shallow areas 2 inches to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. The cranes like extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Roost sites also need to be 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines and loud noises. If food is not available, agricultural grain fields or pasture land should be within one mile of stopover site for foraging.
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FOTWW President to speak at Nebraska Crane Festival

Nebraska Crane Festival
Sandhill Crane. Photo by Virginia Short

Friends of The Wild Whoopers’ (FOTWW) President Chester McConnell will be a speaker at Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival 2019 program on Saturday, March 23rd between 10:00 and 10:50 AM. This year’s Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival, taking place March 21-24, 2019, brings together hundreds of crane lovers from around the country to Kearney, Nebraska. Visitors will get to interact with a wide range of environmental speakers, take part in incredible birding trips, and, best of all, experience the world’s largest gathering of Sandhill Cranes and maybe even a rare sighting of endangered Whooping Cranes!

McConnell will be discussing Whooping Crane biology and habitat needs. FOTWW has been working with military bases, Indian Reservations and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for the past three years to identify and evaluate existing and potential “stopover habitats” on their properties. FOTWW believes that “stopover habitat” is a necessary but virtually ignored part of the overall effort to save endangered wild Whooping Cranes in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population.

Once habitats have been identified, FOTWW prepares detailed plans for each property explaining how they should be developed and protected to provide essential “stopover habitats” for migrating Whooping Cranes. Whooping Cranes migrate a distance of 2,500 miles two times each year between their nesting habitat on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and their Aransas Refuge winter habitat on the Texas coast.

During each of the two annual migrations, the Whooping Cranes must stop to rest and feed 15 to 30 times. FOTWW believes that the wild population is capable of taking care of itself with two exceptions. These Whoopers need man to protect their habitats and to stop shooting them.

Clicking here will take you to the total Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival program agenda.

We hope to see you there!

***** 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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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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