Whooping Cranes Are Making Their Way to the Texas Coast

Whooping cranes at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.
Whooping cranes at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims ©2014.

Nov. 4, 2021
AUSTIN — With the first sightings of iconic, endangered whooping cranes along the Texas coast being reported, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is reminding Texans to be on the lookout for these impressive birds as they move through the state.

Whooping cranes are the tallest, rarest birds in North America. Currently, there is a population of around 506 individuals. Thanks to coordinated conservation efforts, whooping cranes are slowly returning from the brink of extinction.

Whooping cranes make a 2,500-mile journey from their Canadian breeding grounds in northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park to the coastal marshes of Texas each year. The migration south to Texas can take up to 50 days.

During their migration, whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields where they can roost and feed. The birds often pass large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin. Though whooping cranes rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, it is important that they not be disturbed or harassed at these stopovers. As a federally protected species, it is illegal to disturb or harass these birds.

With sandhill crane and waterfowl hunting seasons opening and whooper migration in full swing, TPWD urges hunters to be extra vigilant. Whooping cranes are sometimes found in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are gray and slightly smaller. With their all-white body plumage and black wingtips, whooping cranes may also resemble snow geese, which are much smaller and have faster wing beats. A video detailing the differences between snow geese and whooping cranes can be found on the TPWD YouTube Channel.

There are several other non-game species that are similar in appearance such as wood storks, American white pelicans, great egrets and others, but a close look will reveal obvious differences. More information on look-alike species is available online.

Wade Harrell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Whooping Crane Coordinator at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), says the first of the season was a family group consisting of two adults and a juvenile on the Aransas NWR, along with another tracked bird that arrived in the Port O’ Connor-area, both on Oct. 29.

Harrell says typically most all of the tagged Whooping Cranes he studies are on the move in November as they head for their wintering grounds. The majority of the birds arrive on the Texas Coast in December.

Once whooping cranes arrive on their wintering grounds, many stay in the same general area. Younger birds, however, often haven’t paired yet and may wander a little off their usual flight path, using areas quite distant from the Aransas NWR area.

Harrell says due to the La Niña weather pattern forecast for this winter, the Southwest is in for a drier, warmer season. While this past summer was relatively wet and freshwater wetlands currently have water, a dry winter may require the use of freshwater wells on the Aransas NWR and surrounding areas to provide freshwater to the whooping cranes later in the winter. The USFWS is encouraging landowners to consider providing freshwater on their properties as well to aid the birds during their migration and wintering period.

The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to TPWD’s Whooper Watch, a citizen-science based reporting system to track whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas.  More information about Whooper Watch, including instructions for reporting sightings, can be found online and by downloading the iNaturalist mobile app. These observations help biologists identify new migration and wintering locations and their associated habitats.

Biologists remain optimistic that continued research and restoration work will ultimately lead to improved numbers of whooping cranes and say that new pending federal legislation, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), could help in a big way. RAWA would provide the funding needed to continue the important conservation work that is vital for whooping cranes and other species throughout Texas. Learn how to help through the Texas Wildlife Alliance’s online toolkit. Texas Wildlife Alliance is a grass roots coalition formed to support RAWA.

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50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW) is joining the millions of people around the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day by fighting for the future of Whooping Crane habitat along the Central Flyway. To date, FOTWW has evaluated and made recommendations on 41 military bases, 7 of the 8 Native American reservations, and 34 Army Corps Of Engineers lakes in 7 states along the traditional migration corridor. With the wild population increasing and climate change, these stopover locations will serve a more important role as habitat along the Gulf Coast disappears. #EarthDay2020

Earth Day
                           Earth Day 2020

***** 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.

fall migration
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Thank You From FOTWW

THANK YOU to our Giving Tuesday donors! Your donations will help Friends of the Wild Whoopers continue its Whooping Crane “Stopover Habitat” project. ❤️ #ThankYouWednesday

Photo courtesy of Captain Kevin of Aransas Bay Birding Charters

Thank you

 

***** 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.

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
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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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