Originally published March 23, 2014 at 10:45 p.m., updated March 24, 2014 at 7:16 a.m.
Felipe Chavez-Ramirez has scars on the back of his hands and forearms from catching whooping cranes. Part of a team of researchers from multiple organizations putting lightweight GPS devices on whoopers, he’s the guy who first puts hands on the 5-foot-tall birds.
“The bird is standing up when I get there. When we’re standing next to each other, we’re looking into each other’s eyes,” the 5-foot-7 Chavez-Ramirez said. “It’s very feisty. Its primary weapon is its legs.”
The research team put tracking devices on 68 of the endangered birds of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population during the span of four years. That was more than 20 percent of population, said Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The GPS units, which are attached to the bird’s upper leg, send the location of the bird to a satellite four to five times a day, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.
Any day now, whooping cranes are expected to pass through the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Last year, the first whooping crane arrived on March 6.
In 2012 and 2011, the whoopers arrived on March 16.
“Statistically, their peak movement is the last week of March and the first two weeks of April,” said Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at the refuge, in Stafford County.
The arrival of the whoopers generally signals the spring migration. But there are signs that spring has arrived.
Already, flocks of sandhill cranes have been passing through the refuge on their way to the staging grounds on Nebraska’s Platte River. Other birds – four tundra swans were spotted in Quivira along with a handful of pelicans, 200 Baird’s sandpipers and thousands of ducks – are resting in the water-filled marshes.
Media Contact: Mark Klym, 512-389-4644, firstname.lastname@example.org
March 6, 2014
AUSTIN — Endangered whooping cranes will soon begin their annual 2,400-mile spring migration from Aransas to Canada. As the rare birds leave the Lone Star State, Texas residents and visitors are invited to report whooper sightings.
Texas Whooper Watch (http://tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes/) is a volunteer monitoring program that is a part of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Nature Trackers program. The program was developed as a citizen science initiative to help the agency learn more about whooping cranes and their winter habitats in Texas.
Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas. Last year, whooping cranes from an experimental flock in Louisiana spent most of their summer months in Texas, and the Whooper Watch volunteers were able to provide valuable information to TPWD, Louisiana Game and Fish and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service about these birds.
This year, biologists expect whooping cranes to start moving north in mid-March or early April. Reports to Texas Whooper Watch will also help improve the accuracy of surveys on the wintering grounds, as the growth of the flock has made traditional census methods more difficult.
Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through north and central Texas, including Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria. During the migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting (71 percent of all observations) is fewer than three birds, although the fall migration this year produced some groups of more than 10 birds. They may also be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane. Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, measuring nearly five feet tall. The cranes are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight, red crown and black mustache. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.
Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whooping cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations. Sightings can be reported to email@example.com or (512) 389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” in order to collect more detailed data may also contact TPWD at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-389-TXWW (8999).
Probably less than a dozen persons in the past 50 years have actually witnessed the northward departure of whooping cranes (Grus Americana) from their wintering grounds on and adjacent to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Few, if any, have observed a more spectacular exodus than the junior author watched on the morning of 6 April 1966.
On this clear, sunlit day he was conducting a combination routine and spring whooping crane departure date patrol through traditional crane habitat along the east shore road of the refuge. While traveling southwesterly one-half mile north of the northeast corner of whooper feed plot No. 1, he counted 32 of the giant birds within this managed crane feeding area. When he was about 1,000 yards from the cranes, 12 of them arose and flew eastward about one mile and lit along the northwest edge of Sundown (Mullet) Bay. While watching the 12 birds alight, he heard the obstreperous calling of most or all of the remaining cranes and turned to see that these birds had taken to the air. It became apparent later that they were en route to their remote northern nesting area.
Shortly after taking to the air, the flock quickly divided into groups of 3, 3, 2, 7, and 5 birds and circled clockwise, upward, and northward in a spiraling motion. The groups of 7 and 5 birds were thought to be yearlings and non-breeders. The remaining groups were family units. The horizontal and vertical separation of the individual groups varied and was estimated to range from 400 to 1,200 feet. The diameter of the circle was judged to be one-fourth mile.
The 20 cranes left the ground at 9:00 am; 12 minutes later they were only visible as tiny airborne specks, and in a few more moments they were no longer discernible through a 7 X 50 binocular.
Winds at the time of departure were from the southeast at about 18-20 mph. Each turn of a group of cranes into the wind resulted in a gain in altitude. As the birds spiraled upward, they maintained their respective positions with no noticeable change in the size or shape of the spiral. They “whooped” continuously as they moved upward and away from the observer. At no time were the 12 birds remaining on the ground heard calling.
Earlier that morning Benham had observed one immature and two adult whooping cranes feeding inside whooper feeding plot No. 2, approximately one mile north of the main body of birds. They had not flown as he passed about 1,500 feet from them. On his return past this spot he noted the three cranes about 500 feet off the ground, spiraling and calling loudly in a manner similar to the previously departed birds. The time was 9:14 am. At 9:19 am, Benham lowered the binoculars to rest his eyes. When the three cranes were last seen, they appeared larger than the 20 birds at last glimpse, so it is possible constant surveillance with the binoculars would have rendered the trio visible for longer than five minutes.
It is reasonable to assume calls of the first departing cranes were heard by the later migrating family because of wind direction, audibility of the cranes’ piercing whoops, and the close distance between the two groups when the airborne flock flew over or within one-half mile or less of the family unit. We hypothesize that the exodus of the 20 birds precipitated the departure of the lone family group.
It is interesting that the first contingent of migrating cranes displayed some aerial territorialism, although they were all observed feeding side by side within the food plot a few minutes before departure.—Robert H. Shields, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Portland, Oregon, and Earl L. Benham, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Austwell, Texas.
[The Auk, April-June 1968, Volume 85, Number 2, Page 318]