Wintering Whooping Crane Update, October 24, 2019

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
A newly arrived family group on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge Photo by Kevin Sims © 2017

It seemed like fall would never arrive after a long, hot summer, but cooler, shorter days have finally made an appearance with many species of migrants now frequenting the friendly skies!  Whooping Crane migration is in full swing and the first pair of our winter residents was reported by photographer John Humbert in the Seadrift area on October 9.  Regular U.S. migration hotspots like Quivira NWR in Kansas have already reported their first whooping cranes of the season as well. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look at Texas Whooper Watch:  Whooping Crane Look-Alikes.

It was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed South on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.

The Whooping Crane migration from WBNP to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to 50 days to complete. 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.  As of October 23, 14 marked birds were still north of the border in fall staging areas of Central Saskatchewan, one of them was in North Dakota, one was in South Dakota, one was in Kansas, one was in Oklahoma, and one was on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR.  There is a slight chance that some marked cranes are still on their breeding grounds in WBNP, but the lack of cellular towers make them untrackable until they begin to head south.

Report Texas Migration Sightings

Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via Texas Whooper Watch.

Current conditions at Aransas NWR:

Food & Water Abundance

You might remember last fall and winter was a record wet period and we seem to be headed the other direction this year. This summer and fall was quite dry, with September, typically one of our wettest months of the year, only producing 2.94” of rain at Aransas NWR (2.94” of rain). Thus, much of the standing water that we saw across the Refuge last winter is now gone and freshwater wetlands are shrinking somewhat. Since June, we have recorded 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regards to what the future holds.

Habitat Management at Aransas:

We were able to burn a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes.  We also burned an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units.  By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access. Summer burns are often provide more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, thus are an important tool for us at Aransas NWR.

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In anticipation of migration

Now that summer has “unofficially” come to an end, our thoughts begin to focus on fall with its crisp cool days, leaves changing colors, and the upcoming whooping crane migration from Wood Buffalo National Park to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. We are not the only ones anticipating the beginning of migration. Our good friend Val Mann is also waiting for migration to begin. Each year, she and her sister Kim explore the grid roads of Saskatchewan, in search of the beloved and elusive whooping crane.

In anticipation of the start of migration, Val has been working on photos of a whooping crane family taken a couple of years ago and sent us the lovely photo that she was able to capture.

Val writes, “It’s almost time for whooping cranes to begin their annual return to Texas from their summer homes in Wood Buffalo National Park including their fall stopovers in Saskatchewan.  Sandhill cranes will also be on the move.  A couple of years ago, we were fortunate enough to photograph a family of whooping cranes in a roadside slough using our dusty grid road-coloured vehicle as a blind.  Cranes typically do not come close to the road as they tend to prefer the middle of fields, at least a mile or two from the road.  In this photograph, powerful telephoto lenses and post-production cropping give the illusion that the parent crane and colt were much closer than they actually were.  If extremely lucky this fall, we will see migrating cranes as they stage in farmers’ fields and sloughs.”

migration
Whooping cranes in a roadside slough in Saskatchewan. © Photo by Val Mann

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Val for her photo and we wish both Val and Kim success in their travels along the grid roads of Saskatchewan this fall.

***** 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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37 Fledglings Counted During Whooping Crane Survey On Wood Buffalo National Park

whooping crane survey
A photo of one of the 2019 fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have completed their joint whooping crane fledgling surveys on Wood Buffalo National Park and surrounding area. A total of 37 fledged chicks from 36 sets of parents were observed. An increase from last year’s 24 fledglings. It appears that conditions at the park were better than last year. May rainfall was only 84% of normal, however, in June rainfall was 141% above normal, with most (22mm) of that falling on June 2 just as some of the chicks were hatching.

The fledgling survey is done in between the end of July and mid-August.  Fledglings are birds that have reached an age where they can fly. The technique for this survey is very similar to the breeding pair survey.  The nest locations are known so that the staff can fly directly to the nest.  If the Whooping Cranes have not been successful in raising a chick they may still be in their territory or they could be kilometers away. If a pair does have a chick, they are generally found fairly close to their nest.

whooping crane survey
Looking for fledglings. © Photo by Parks Canada.

Importance Of Surveys

Both the Nest and the Fledgling Surveys are part of the world-class restoration plan that has made the endangered Whooping Crane an international success story and symbol of species recovery and conservation. By counting the number of fledgling chicks, Parks Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others gain important insights into the health of the world’s last remaining natural nesting flock of Whooping Cranes that contribute greatly to our ongoing stewardship of these magnificent birds.

whooping crane survey
Helicopter used during fledgling survey. © Photo by Parks Canada

WBNP and nearby areas provide the last natural nesting habitat for the endangered Whooping Cranes. The birds are hatched in and near WBNP each spring. After they fledge they migrate 2,500 miles to their winter habitat on, or near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. During their 2,500 mile migration they stopover 20 to 30 times to rest, forage for food and roost during the nights. Then, the following April the total population returns to WBNP to repeat the reproduction cycle again.

 

The video below, sent to FOTWW by Parks Canada is of one of the 2019 fledglings.

FOTWW thanks all those involved in this recent survey and a thank you to Parks Canada for sending us photos and short video for everyone to enjoy.

Whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada

 

whooping crane survey
Whooping crane nesting grounds from the air. © Photo by Parks Canada
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More Stopover Habitat for Whooping Cranes on Corps of Engineer Lakes

August 6, 2019
by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

“Stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes received another large boost this week. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) and their Corps of Engineers (COE) partners recently completed evaluations of potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” on four additional COE lakes. During the past two years there has been remarkable increasing awareness and interest about Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” needs throughout the seven state mid-continent migration corridor. FOTWW President Chester McConnell is thrilled and remarked, “It’s about time”.

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. Whoopers need many areas to stop, rest and feed during their two annual 2,500 mile migrations from Canada to the Texas coast.

During past 60 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. This major focus on Aransas and Wood Buffalo habitats has been a wise management decision but over time the need for morel focus is needed on “stopover habitats”. In the past, most of the “stopover habitats” have been on small farm ponds and wetlands. Unfortunately for Whooping Cranes and many other wildlife species, these habitats have been and are being lost at an alarming rate due to changing land uses including larger agriculture fields and various kinds of development.

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. 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. 15 to 30 times. They need many “stopover habitats” along the migration corridor to fulfill their needs.

Indeed, the population could not exist without all three habitat areas – the nesting habitat, winter habitat and stopover habitats. McConnell compared a human automobile trip of about 3,000 mile from New York to California. The driver would have to stop at three or four motels to rest and about 12 restaurants for meals. So it is for Whooping Crane needs for “stopover habitats”.

Expanding WC population

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. It’s happening on COE lakes, Indian Reservations and military bases throughout the migration corridor. We recently completed assessments on 27 lakes on Corps property and two hundred and ninety-eight ponds of various sizes (1/2 ac. to 4 ac.) on seven military bases.

Importance of Habitat for Whooping Cranes

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.

Recent visits to Corps of Engineer lakes

Chester McConnell and his FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell recently visited four more COE lakes in Texas to evaluate potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes: Jim Chapman Lake, Ray Roberts Lake, Lewisville Lake and Hords Creek Lake. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE in coordination with Lake Managers made arrangements for our 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.

Habitat for Whooping Cranes
A five person team using a large boat made observations of representative samples of potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes on Ray Roberts Lake. Team members in photo left to right: Martin K. Underwood, Environmental Stewardship Business Line Manager for the Trinity Region, USACE; Dorothy McConnell, Field Assistant, FOTWW; Nick Wilson, Lead Ranger for Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE; Rob Jordan, Lake Manager for both Lewisville and Ray Roberts Lakes, USACE. Team member FOTWW President Chester McConnell present but not in photo.
Habitat for Whooping Cranes
This photo exhibits one of the better “Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” that we observed on Ray Roberts Lake. It is currently suitable as a “stopover habitat”. Note the callout pointing to the narrow bar where Whoopers can walk out, feed and rest while being able to observe any predaters in the area. Note the two yellow arrows pointing to the long wide open areas where Whoopers can forage and rest.

***** 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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