Whooping Crane Nesting Grounds Discovered

For many years the location and whereabouts of the whooping crane nesting grounds of the only wild flock of whooping cranes remained elusive and unknown. Whooping crane observers only knew that the birds migrated from “somewhere” in Canada to the Texas Coast. As pressure mounted to protect and manage the birds, it was important to locate their nesting grounds so these essential habitats could be protected before it was too late to save the whooping crane from extinction. In 1954 the whooping crane nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park were discovered.

This past spring and early summer saw warm temperatures and little rain at Wood Buffalo National Park, resulting in wildfires within the park’s boundaries. In 1954 when the nesting grounds were discovered, conditions were similar and if it hadn’t been for one of these fires and one observant forester, the nesting grounds may not have been discovered in time to save our beloved and majestic whooping cranes.

Dr. William A. Fuller is often given credit for the discovery of the whooping crane nesting grounds but FOTWW invites you to read his account, in his own words, of this historic discovery and whom he believes should be given credit for it.


by Dr. W. A. Fuller

I have received a lot of credit for the discovery in 1954 of the only whooping cranes in Canada, but if it hadn’t been for the fire and an observant forester named George Wilson, I might never have gone out to identify the birds. The last nest of a whooping crane had been seen in about 1926 in Saskatchewan. Members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USWS) and others had searched from central Saskatchewan to the delta of the Mackenzie River without success. The USWS was interested because whoopers migrated to Texas. In 1945, I spent the summer working on fish in Lake Athabasca. At the end of the summer I decided that I would never return to the north. However, in 1946 I signed up to spend the summer at Great Slave Lake. The following winter I put together all the data that had been gathered over several years on the “Inconnu” (Stenodus leucichthys) and submitted the result as my masters thesis for the University of Saskatchewan. Convocation took place in early May.

Whooping crane nesting grounds.
Whooping crane at Wood Buffalo National Park. photo by Klaus Nigge

A few days after the ceremony, I turned 23, and on the last day of May I married the young lady who is still my wife. I had previously applied for one of two jobs advertised by the federal government, and I was approved for the one based in Fort Smith, NWT. I found the north gets under your skin, and my wife Marie and I landed in Fort Smith on June 5. My duties centerd on mammals in the south half of the Mackenzie District and in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), part of which is in Alberta. In those days, the United States sent a bird guy, Bob Smith, and an assistant down to the Arctic Ocean. They flew out of Fort Smith for two or three days, and I usually took them up on their invitations to go on their sorties. Bob was a great guy, as well as a good pilot and a good bird man. Although waterfowl were the main target, they kept their eyes open for other birds, such as whooping cranes. As late as 1954 they had not made a sure discovery of whoopers, although on an earlier flight with them, one thought he had spotted a crane, but by the time Bob swung the plane around, whatever had been seen had disappeared.

In June 1954, a fire broke out in the northern part of  Wood Buffalo Park. On June 30, the fire crew radioed to Fort Smith that one of their pumps was out of order. The forestry guy, George Wilson, went out to the site of the fire in a whirlybird piloted by Don Landells. I was in my office around 4:00 p.m. when a message came in from the plane to the effect that George and Don had seen a few big white birds, which they suspected were whooping cranes. Furthermore, Landells was to make another trip on the same route with a new pump, and if Bill Fuller was at the landing spot at 5:00 p.m., he could go back with Don and the pump.

Bill Fuller was at the landing and ready to go at 5:00 p.m. Don took us back on about the same route he had flown earlier, and we did see some large white birds, which were certainly whoopers. There were young birds as well as adults, so there was reason to believe that the nesting grounds were not too far away. I think we saw about nine birds on that first trip. I sent a telegram to the head office in Ottawa later that evening.

Ottawa’s reply the next morning asked me to keep an eye on the birds whenever there was a chance. I made several trips on an ordinary prop plane. On one such trip I counted thirteen birds, which was just over half of the birds (21, I think) counted in the Texas flock at that time.

Whooping crane nesting grounds./Wood Buffalo National Park.
Two adults and one juvenile whooping crane.Photo: John McKinnon / ©Parks Canada /Wood Buffalo National Park.

The Whooping Crane Society and the USWS were very excited about the discovery, and soon there was talk about a ground survey in 1955. Canadian and American scientists would carry it out. However, the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) did not want to commit to that until there was proof of nesting, so I was to take a look next spring as early and as often as possible.

In those days, light aircraft landed on skis in winter and on pontoons in summer. The changeover was made in Edmonton in spring and fall, so it was difficult to find transportation just when I needed it. While our government plane was in Edmonton, I got a ride with a pilot from Yellowknife on his way to Edmonton. I got another ride in a plane owned by the RCMP in Fort Smith. On that flight I saw what could only be a crane sitting on a nest. So the ground survey was on. Robert P. Allen of the National Audubon Society was to lead it. When Allen arrived in Fort Smith, we made one flight over the area so I could show him the location of the known nests.

I made other flights, and I think I found a few more nest sites, but when the ground survey came on, I was at a conference in Alaska. The attempted ground survey is a story of its own. In 1956  I moved to Whitehorse in the Yukon, and Ernie Kuyt of the CWS took over work on the cranes. I had flown over the region of the first sightings a number of times. I had noted the tracks in the mud and searched my brains for a mammal that would make such a trail in the soft mud of the lake bottoms. Big birds never crossed my mind until I saw the cranes there in 1955. So who discovered the nesting ground? Wilson and Landells, who saw the big white birds? Me, because I saw young birds as well as mature birds on my sorties in 1955 and was also the first to see a female on a nest in the spring of 1956? It doesn’t really matter. The important point is that an important nesting ground was found. Each year for several more years, Ernie Kuyt found new nests. The total number of cranes in the Texas/WBNP flock has continued to increase in most, if not all, years since 1955.

* Published in Wild Lands Advocate, The Alberta Wilderness Association, December 2004 • Vol.12, No. 6, pages 16 and 17.

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WMI Landscapes – Conservation Design in Response to Sea Level Rise on the Texas Gulf Coast

Sea level has risen at an average rate of 4.6 mm/year since 1948 at Rockport, Texas. The rate is increasing and models predict sea level will be from .46 to .87 meters higher along theTexas coast by the end of the century. That may not sound like much, but given the nature of the landscape, that rise will shift the coastline inland by an average of 1 to 2 kilometers and significantly affect bays, estuaries, marshes and current upland habitats. Conservation of species, like the endangered whooping crane and Aplomado falcon and several species of conservation concern such as reddish egrets, clapper rails and seaside sparrows, relies on the ability to identify and target areas that have potential to allow habitats and species to adapt as sea level rises. In response to the inevitable changes to coastal ecology, the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative  (GCP LCC) initiated a project to apply a conservation design approach to the central Texas coast.

Whooping cranes on Texas coast where sea level rise may alter habitat conditions.
Whooping cranes on Texas coast where sea level rise may alter habitat conditions.

Dr. Elizabeth Smith with the International Crane Foundation (ICF) and Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez with the Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative Gulf Coast Bird Observatory (GCBO) conducted the GCP LCC study. The project required a substantial technical effort, which was supported by Luz Lumb and James Gibeaut of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded the research with additional support from the ICF, GCBO, Harte Institute and the Wildlife Management Institute. The study was conducted on the section of Texas coast between Houston and Brownsville, surrounding the Matagorda, San Antonio and Aransas Bays. This area was chosen because it includes the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which provides critical winter habitat for the only wild population of whooping cranes along with several other bird species of concern.

The objectives of the project were to create a composite habitat dataset that identify the spatial extent of coastal habitat types, developed lands, and protected areas in the project area; estimate the amount and spatial configuration of habitat for whooping cranes; develop projections of the amount and spatial configuration of habitat and potential impacts on other selected bird species; construct maps of habitat shifts in coastal prairie and marshes under various sea-level rise scenarios; define the shifts in habitat availability and extent for the whooping crane and other selected species; and recommend ways to apply the methods used to extend results to additional areas within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes Ecoregion.

The conservation challenge posed by sea level rise is clear, based on the biology of whooping cranes. The 300 or so remaining whooping cranes establish winter territories in areas of coastal salt marsh characterized by plentiful food resources and low salinity levels. Cranes feed mainly on the blue crab and wolfberries that can be found in abundance in these coastal marshes during most years. Cranes spend the vast majority of their winter period in these territories and defend their territory against other cranes. The intermediate salinities in these marshes are favorable to blue crabs and important to whooping cranes because they can drink brackish water. If salinities rise above 15 – 20 ppm, the cranes must fly to upland water sources in ponds and wetlands outside their territories to drink.

With sea level rise, water depth and salinity in areas currently used by whooping cranes will increase lowering food availability and habitat quality in these areas. Similarly, current upland habitats will experience changes induced by saltwater intrusion and higher storm surges. Given the degree of human infrastructure already established along this stretch of coast, rapid ongoing development, and the high probability that existing and future human structures will be reinforced in response to sea level rise, it cannot be assumed that habitat currently available and important for whooping cranes and other coastal species will simply march inland as the water rises. Conservation design, an element of Strategic Habitat Conservation, is a deliberative and quantitative approach to identifying those areas that have the highest potential to provide habitat in the future.

The results of this study will be available soon on the GCP LCC website. The final report includes extensive information on current habitat types as well as the distribution and biology of whooping cranes and other selected bird species. It provides maps of the current spatial distribution of habitat and projections of future habitat and bird use areas based on six different sea level rise scenarios.

Results of this project will be used by LCC partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prioritize investments in habitat conservation for refuge expansion along the Texas Coast. The results will help to inform decisions on infrastructure investment by conservation organizations looking to conserve avian species in this area of important habitat, thus contributing to conservation objectives continentally for migratory species like the whooping crane.

The GCP LCC will host a webinar with Dr. Smith presenting some of the results of the study in August; monitor the GCP LCC website for information on the date and time. (cs)

The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is providing support to the Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) network. This section of the Outdoor News Bulletin provides readers with regular updates on LCC efforts involving WMI.

Article by: The Outdoor News Bulletin,  Wildlife Management Institute

                   ***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
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Whooping Cranes Survived Many Adversities

Historical Troubles

Whooping cranes have struggled to survive various adversities since man came to the North American continent. First it was the American Indians who killed them and collected their eggs for food and feathers. It is believed however that the Indians did only minor harm because their hunting equipment was primitive.                                                  Territorial Dispute Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Problems increased tremendously for the whoopers after the Europeans migrated to the continent. The new settlers had guns and hunted the cranes for food. But their most damaging tools were their shovels, axes and plows. These tools were used to destroy millions of acres of whooping crane habitat. Settlers drained wetlands with their shovels, cleared forest with their axes and plowed the former wetlands and forest for agricultural purposes. Yet, with all the killing and habitat destruction some of the whoopers survived. Only 14 remained in the wild in 1940 but the population slowly increased to 304 in 2014.

Disaster in Galveston Bay

Fortunately, the majority of these endangered whooping cranes have made it through some serious adversities during the past decade. The most recent hazard was the barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel that dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. The spilled oil followed the Gulf of Mexico currents westward down the coast and reached the Matagorda Island unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Oil killed wildlife and damaged the environment in some of the gulf waters, wetlands, estuaries and beaches, but not on Aransas Refuge.

 A deceased bird as the result of the Galveston Oil Spill
Bird soaked in oil.

Hundreds of oil spill cleanup workers were deployed to Matagorda Island to remove the oil due to the presents of whooping cranes and other endangered wildlife. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team worked with great care scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels and removed it from the beach. Aransas Refuge Manager Sonny Perez advised Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) that “none of the oil got into the marshes or bay systems on Matagorda Island or any other part of the refuge.” However, on other areas of the Texas coast many other wild birds, turtles and porpoises were killed.

The latest information available from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service teams reported: “21 dolphins and 4 turtles stranded. Most of these are in the Galveston, TX area but reports from Matagorda Island are increasing. All of the dolphins were dead, two turtles were captured alive and are being rehabilitated. Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway. Approximately 150 dead birds have been reported in the Galveston area and 30 in the Matagorda area.” FOTWW has asked for a final tally of dead animals.

Oil Cleanup Completed? 

Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto told FOTWW that “cleanup of oil on Matagorda Island beach is completed but we are closely monitoring to determine if more oil washes onto the beach.” Prieto also advised, “We believe all of the whooping cranes have departed Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and are currently migrating on their way to their Canadian nesting grounds. We have not observes any whoopers on the refuge in several days”.

According to Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, “This season we documented four whooping crane mortalities on and around Aransas NWR.”  “ FOTWW understands that except for the four documented mortalities, all of the estimated 304 whooping cranes survived the winter on Aransas Refuge. Some of the whoopers have already reached Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada and will soon begin building their nests according John McKinnon, Wood Buffalo National Park. This is all great news for those who support the only remaining wild, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes on the planet.

Horror on the Gulf 

Whooping cranes dodged another even larger disaster known as the “BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill”.  In 2010 this horrific accident killed 11 people and spilled over four million barrels of oil into the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. While this disaster did not have any known effects on whooping cranes it did have catastrophic effect on other birds, fishes, porpoises, shell fish, turtles and other wildlife species.

Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.
Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.

The effect on bird populations in the area of the BP oil spill is just now being realized according to some. This week, the New York Times reported in “Still Counting Gulf Spill’s Dead Birds,” about a peer-reviewed study that estimates between 600,000 – 800,000 coastal water birds were killed in the first three months of the 2010 BP oil disaster1. According to the Times article, “This figure represents only a portion of the total bird mortality that occurred as a result of the spill. The study, which uses two different modeling techniques, is the first public estimate of a portion of bird mortality caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We know that the ecosystem is deeply damaged and will take years to begin to recover.”

Fortunately, whooping cranes have not been harmed by two of the largest oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in recent memory. FOTWW believes however that we must remain vigilant because a hurricane could possibly push some of the off shore submerged oil onto beaches and wetlands along the coast. And there is always the danger that some vessel loaded with oil or chemicals navigating along the Intracoastal Waterway could have an accident. The Intracoastal Waterway is located immediately adjacent to Aransas Refuge for about 17 miles.

Lingering Oil Worries 

Then there is the lingering worry about the abandoned and capped, but leaking oil and gas wells. According to an Associate Press news story “there are over 27,000 oil and gas wells within the Gulf of Mexico that have abandoned and have been capped to prevent the leakage of oil and gas from them. About 3,500 of these wells are oil and gas wells that have been “temporarily abandoned” and have been capped in a less stringent manner than other wells which were “permanently” capped.

Neither industry nor government checks for leaks at the oil and gas wells abandoned in the Gulf of Mexico since the late 1940s. Abandoned wells are known sometimes to fail both on land and offshore. It happens so often that a technical term has been coined for the repair job: “re-abandonment.” Collectively these wells may be allowing tremendous quantities of waste onto the gulf shores and causing harm to fish and wildlife.

Hurricane Threats 

Another major threat to whoopers and other wildlife on Aransas Refuge is hurricanes. In August of 1965 a major hurricane slammed into Matagorda Island causing significant damage. Mercifully the whooping cranes were still at Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting grounds getting ready for their southward migration. Increasingly, however, late-summer storms are occurring and may happen when whooping cranes have arrived on Aransas.

Aransas has both a “Hurricane Plan” and an “Oil Spill Plan” according to Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto. So, the refuge officials are at well informed on what course of actions they will take in case of emergencies. Such plans can reduce damages when emergencies occur.

Fresh Water Crisis Looms

“Drought is an ongoing major adversity for Aransas Refuge. The refuge has been short on rainfall for the past three years” advised Refuge Manager Sonny Perez.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact the onset of a prolonged drought in Texas in the fall of 2008 caused serious problems for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock. The Aransas Refuge gets much of its fresh water from the Guadalupe River. Fresh water maintains the salinity of the coastal wetlands and allows for the production of blue crabs, the whooping crane’s major winter food. The prolonged drought and the diversions of Guadalupe River water allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resulted in an increased salinity of water around the Aransas refuge. Tom Stehn, former U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator contends that the salinity changes devastated the local population of blue crabs and led to the death of at least 23 whooping cranes during the winter of 2008–09.

Dr. Paul A Johnsgard, professor emeritus University of Nebraska-Lincoln wrote an in-depth article titled, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat. He wrote: “Given the recent warming and drying climate trend in the Great Plains, and consequent increased losses of wetlands, the future of the Wood Buffalo Park–Aransas flock of whooping cranes is still by no means secure. However, without the establishment of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge at a critical time, the species would almost certainly have been added to the dismal list of twentieth-century North American bird extinctions including the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and Eskimo curlew.”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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Whooping Crane Conservation topic for Audubon Meeting

Whooper adult and juvenile amazed

Friends of the Wild Whoopers member, Chester McConnell will present a program on “Whooping Cranes Conservation Efforts” at the Mobile Bay Audubon Society meeting according to Gaye Lindsey (Audubon birding coordinator). McConnell explained that his presentation will focus on management efforts for the wild whooping crane flock that migrates between Aransas Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo Park nesting grounds in Canada.

In addition he will discuss the two experimental flocks in the eastern U.S.   Operation Migration’s ultra-lite plane led whooping cranes fly through the entire length of Alabama on their migration path from Wisconsin to Florida. Many citizens turn out along the migration corridor to observe this most interesting effort.

Threats to the whooping crane programs including oil spills and wind energy projects will also be described.

McConnell said, “The last wild whooping cranes to be recorded in Alabama was on Dauphin Island and Prattville during November 1899 but many people continue to be interested in these beautiful  endangered birds.” Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America and stand 5 feet tall and have wing spans of 7 feet.

Audubon’s meeting will be at Alabama’s 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center , Spanish Fort, Alabama on Tuesday, May 13 starting at 7:00 p.m. Ms. Lindsey explained that this will be an excellent presentation which is open to the public.

To learn more about Friends of The Wild Whoopers organization click on: FOTWW

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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