Benbrook Lake, a surprise stopover habitat for Whooping Cranes in Texas

By Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is continuing its efforts to encourage government agencies and Indian Reservations to manage portions of their lands to help wild Whooping Cranes. Whoopers and many other wildlife species often use the same wetland habitats and specific adjustments to portions of selected wetland sites could be beneficial to many species. FOTWW focuses its efforts on protecting existing Whooper habitats, planning needed habitat improvements where needed and encouraging landowner/managers to support our efforts. 

Benbrook Lake a nice surprise               

Chester McConnell FOTWW’s Wildlife Biologist is currently visiting U.S. Army Corps of Engineer (USACE) lakes in the 7 state Whooping Crane migration corridor to evaluate habitats. McConnell explained that “Friends of the Wild Whoopers is evaluating lakes, small ponds and wetlands throughout the mid-west to help protect and improve “stopover habitats” for the Whoopers.” He revealed that, “During a visit to the USACE Benbrook Lake in mid-Texas, I had a welcome surprise. I visited the lake to evaluate its suitability as a place where wild Whooping Cranes could stopover and rest during their two annual migrations through Texas. The lake had some excellent habitat in several locations.”

During our interview, McConnell divulged that, “I pondered what I might observe during my evaluation of a lake in the south west edge of the densely human populated city of Fort Worth. It certainly didn’t seem to be a place that Whooping Cranes would use to stopover to rest and feed. Yet, I have had many surprises during my long career and I have observed many unexpected behaviors by wild critters. During my review of records prior to my visit, I had learned that some Whooping Cranes had actually stopped over on the lake. And during my on-the-ground evaluation of Benbrook Lake I was indeed surprised to observe that there were ample, good quality habitat sites with all the features that the cranes need to make a visit.”

Benbrook Lake
One juvenile and two adult Whooping Cranes. Photo by John Noll

McConnell’s evaluation revealed that, “Some of the habitat around Benbrook Lake is currently in excellent condition to serve as secure Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. However some of the potential habitats will not be useful because they are too close to developed areas and trees grow too close to the lake shore. Still, several such areas have potential and can easily and inexpensively be developed into stopover habitat. Importantly open landscapes near most favorable stopover habitats allow Whooping Cranes to easily locate the sites and provide ready observation of any predator threats (see photos below). The scarcity of tall bushes and trees close to these habitats provide easily accessible flight approach corridors for Whooping Cranes entering the area.

Based on information from a recent U.S. Geological Survey study, 58 radio-tagged Whooping Cranes provided data on 2,158 stopover sites over 10 migrations and 5 years (2010-14). Several of these additional stopover sites were also in the general vicinity of Benbrook Lake. And one Whooper has been recorded on the lake.

Whoopers normally migrate over or near Benbrook Lake during (March – April (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). They normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart the following morning.

Benbrook Lake important to Whooping Cranes

USACE lakes within the 7 state migration corridor may become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Benbrook Lake and others that are located in the mid-section of the Whooping Crane migration corridor are very important. As the crane population increases they will need more areas to stop over and rest and forage for food. Any Whooping Cranes that may stopover during their fall migration still have over 400 miles remaining to fly to their winter home on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf coast. And if they stopover while migrating north to their nesting area on Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, they have over 2,000 miles more to fly.

Benbrook Lake
Figure 1. This photo on shoreline of north Holiday Park Day Use area is an excellent example of a “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. It provides a flight guide path for approaching Whoopers to easily land on shore. The shore area is free of tall thick vegetation which allows the cranes to readily observe predators. The shore’s gradual slope allows the birds to wade into the shallow water (2” inches to 10” depths) to roost. Foraging for food is available in the shallow water along the shoreline and in the grass area on shore.

FOTWW was pleased to have the opportunity to visit USACE’s Benbrook Lake. The lake and surrounding land area has good fish and wildlife habitat and some excellent Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We were pleased to learn that Whooping Cranes have already begun using the lake properties along with thousands of waterfowl, American egrets and other critters that need wetlands. FOTWW believes that Whooping Crane use of Benbrook Lake will continue and increase as their population continues to increase.

Benbrook Lake also allows a number of other uses of the land and waters including fishing, hunting, birding, camping and other types of recreational activities. Outdoor recreational activities are open to the general public.

Benbrook Lake
Photo by Klaus Nigge

Martin Underwood, USACE – Environmental Stewardship (CESWF) made arrangements for our visit. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Benbrook Lake, Mr. Underwood guided us on a tour of the lake property to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. FOTWW appreciates Mr. Underwood for making preparations for an interesting, productive and enjoyable visit.

Benbrook Lake
Figure 2. This shallow grass area could be a good place for Whooping Cranes to stopover and forage for insects and aquatic animals. Likewise, it is a good place for them to rest and roost. It provides flight guide paths from any direction for approaching Whoopers to easily land in the grass or on shore.. The shore area is free of tall thick vegetation which allows the cranes to readily observe predators. The shore’s gradual slope allows the birds to wade into the shallow water (2” inches to 10” depths) to roost.
Benbrook Lake
Figure 3. This photo shows an area that Whooping Cranes will not use as a roost site. The trees and bushes on the shore are too thick and tall. This site could be developed into a suitable “stopover area if, lake managers would cut back the trees near the shore back to a distance of about 100 feet. Fortunately however, Benbrook Lake currently has ample roosting areas for Whooping Cranes. Yet, as the Whooper population increases and additional habitats are needed, such sites are available for development.
Benbrook Lake
Figure 4. Holiday Park Campground area. This photo includes an open flight glide path and landing area. Once on the ground Whooping Cranes can detect any predators in the area. Then they can walk down gentle slopes into the shallow water area (2” to 10” depth). Foraging for food is available in the shallow water, grass areas and on shore. This is an excellent example of a “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes to use as a roost site. Farther along the shore there are other potential roost sites.