Wintering Whooping Crane Update Time
Dr. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
We plan to begin our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, and our goal is to fly a minimum of six survey days. Phil Thorpe, with our Migratory Birds Program, will be piloting us in a wheeled Kodiak. Hopefully our dreary and wet weather as of late will clear enough to allow safe flying conditions.
Recruitment of juvenile cranes
In addition to an overall estimate of the winter population size, the survey provides us an estimate of how many juveniles were “recruited” into the population this year. Simply put, the only way to effectively grow a population is for births to exceed deaths—i.e. recruiting juveniles into the adult population. The past few years’ increases have been tied to high numbers of fledged chicks on the breeding grounds, but Canada only estimated 23 fledged chicks during their survey this past August. For comparison, that is 40 fewer chicks than reported in the August 2017 survey. Annual variation in fledged chicks is to be expected and we’ve seen this amount of fluctuation in the historic survey records dating back to the 1950’s. Weather in the breeding grounds is often a major driver of chick fledging rate in Wood Buffalo National Park. This past June, when most eggs were hatching, was unseasonably cold and wet—not ideal conditions for early chick survival.
Technology allows for better tracking
Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 adult whooping cranes here on the Refuge with cellular telemetry devices. With these devices providing locations every 15 minutes, we are able to understand daily movements (night and day) and habitat use at a level that wasn’t available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.
One of the new developments that this technology is revealing is how and when whooping cranes move around here on the wintering range. In the past, we understood wintering whooping cranes, particularly mated pairs, to stay in a “territory” or one general area of a few hundred acres, all winter. With the telemetry data, we are starting to see a much more complex picture of movement, with some whooping crane pairs mostly following our traditional understanding of a single territory and others making multiple movements across the entire wintering range throughout the winter. It is difficult to say whether this is related to food availability or simply individual differences, but it does help us understand the need to focus our conservation efforts at a landscape scale—well beyond Refuge boundaries.
Opportunities for viewing whooping cranes
There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas NWR to view whooping cranes in publicly accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough. We also consistently observed a family group of whooping crane in the Mustang Lake salt marsh in front of the observation tower, so you have an excellent opportunity to view whooping cranes at a respectful distance. Please come by and say hello to us at this year’s upcoming Whooping Crane Festival starting February 21 in Port Aransas!
Habitat Management on Aransas NWR
No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter due to the wet conditions. However, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR this winter pending drying conditions.
To our Canadian followers. If you’re in the Saskatoon, SK area on Thursday, January 17th, why not check out Mark Bidwell’s presentation “Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes” put on by Saskatoon Nature Society. The public is welcome and it starts at 7:30 PM. The presentation will be held in Room 1130, Health Sciences E-wing, University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.
Mark specializes in endangered species and he is responsible for whooping crane research and conservation. In his talk he will discuss the current status of whooping cranes and what we know about their behaviour and movements during the breeding season and on their migration through Saskatchewan. Finally he will talk about what can be done to conserve cranes and their habitats.
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.
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.
***** 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.
“Wetlands provide us with water, they protect us from floods, droughts and other disasters, they provide food and livelihoods to millions of people, they support rich biodiversity, and they store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Yet, the value of wetlands remains largely unrecognized by policy and decision makers.” (The Global Wetland Outlook, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands)
Wetlands in Saskatchewan and the U.S. are being lost and that’s a big problem
The world’s freshwater supplies are threatened as never before says Jay Famigletti, Executive Director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security. World-wide, wetlands are being destroyed at 3 times the rate of forests (35% losses since 1970) and one-quarter of wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction. Improved water management and governance are essential if we want to ensure future water and food security.
When the glaciers receded after the last Ice Age, they left behind an array of shallow depressions providing the Prairie Pothole Region with a wealth of small wetlands storing water and providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. In the past, farmers worked around the wetlands, but large farms, massive equipment, and a drive for greater efficiency and productivity have led to farmers draining the potholes.
There’s a strong sentiment among landowners that they can do what they want on their own land and that they should be applauded for their contributions to feeding the world. However, the farmers’ short-term interests are at odds with the long-term interests of the general public. Draining wetlands leads to flooding downstream, increases erosion, lowers the water table, and reduces the supply of water in times of drought. It also fails to recognize wetlands’ important role in carbon sequestration.
To read more about Saskatchewan’s wetland losses, click here.
With the continual loss of wetlands in Saskatchewan where the whooping cranes stage during their annual migration south, the article shows why saving stopover habitat along the 6 state flyway is so important.
Effects of wetland losses on one species, the Whooping Crane
By Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers
Since 1941, the Aransas Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) of Whooping Cranes has increased from 15 birds to an estimated 526 as of winter 2018. Despite the increasing population trend, the whooping cranes of the AWBP remain defenseless against two depredations: habitat destruction and gunshot. During the 200-year period from 1780 to 1980, wetland acreage in the whooping crane migration corridor within the United States declined by over 14,826,000 acres (6 million ha). The whooping crane migration corridor in the United States includes the six states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles two times each year through the six states. They migrate from their Wood Buffalo National Park nesting area in Canada to their winter habitat in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico coast. During each migration, the cranes must “stopover” 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Regrettably loss of stopover habitats continues.
The full extent of threats to and loss of Whooping Crane stopover habitats within the migration corridor are difficult to quantify, but real. These habitats are being diminished and degraded due to a variety of factors, including intensified management on agricultural lands, construction of wind energy facilities and power lines, wetland drainage and reduction in river flows. Changes in agricultural programs are continuing to further reduce the stopover habitats available for whooping cranes.
The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan (Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005) includes numerous references that describe various wetlands used as stopover sites. Important migration stopover sites in the United States include Cheyenne Bottoms State Waterfowl Management Area and Quivira NWR, Kansas; the Platte River bottoms between Lexington and Denman, Nebraska; and Salt Plains NWR, Oklahoma. These large sites have been designated as critical habitat for conservation of the species. Critical habitat is defined in the U.S.Endangered Species Act as habitat that contains those physical or biological features, essential to the conservation of the species, which may require special management considerations or protection. Importantly, other stopover areas have also been documented, both large (e.g., Audubon NWR and Long Lake NWR in North Dakota;) and small. Moreover, whooping cranes are not site-specific each migration and rarely use the same wetland basins year to year. For these reasons, Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) emphasizes that numerous other smaller stopover sites are also essential to ensure diverse opportunities for potential stopover use along the migration corridor
The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan calls for the protection of existing wetlands as whooping crane stopover areas and the enhancement of those wetlands that have been degraded by woody plant encroachment, silting, and/or draining within the migratory corridor. More specifically, the Recovery Plan spells out the need to: “Ensure long-term protection of migration stopover sites; Work with landowners and managers to ensure migration habitat remains suitable for cranes: Pursue stewardship agreements and conservation easements when needed, focusing on providing wetland mosaics”.
Actions by FOTWW to prevent wetland losses
Unfortunately, the Recovery Plan offered no specific entity to protect and manage potential stopover sites. FOTWW emphasizes that a realistic action plan should be developed to name specific agencies to protect and manage existing stopover wetlands and to create new ones. Within the United States’ portion of the migratory corridor, FOTWW could find no ongoing concerted effort that focuses on protection or enhancement of many stopover areas. Private conservation groups and government agencies have played a significant role in protecting wetlands used by whooping cranes, waterfowl, and many other wildlife species throughout the migration corridor. Funds from the sale of Duck Stamps have helped protect over 6 million acres (2.4 million ha)but many of those are managed for waterfowl in ways that may not be suitable for cranes (e.g., presence of tall emergent vegetation around the perimeter or deeper water that would deter cranes from roosting).
To address this gap in information and activity, FOTWW initiated a survey of entities with large land holdings that could possibly provide additional stopover areas. The project consisted of three phases: U.S. military bases, Indian Reservations and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lake properties within the migration corridor. As of December 2018 FOTWW has evaluated potential “stopover habitats” 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. FOTWW has prepared management reports for each area visited describing habitat management practices needed. Currently FOTWW is continuing to evaluate Corps of Engineer lakes and associate lands. The most expensive part of establishing or improving habitat is land cost. If projects can be accomplished on government lands and Indian Reservations, the cost will be relatively minimal.
***** 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.