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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Friends of the Wild Whoopers and Corps of Engineers visit Lewis and Clark Lake

Friends of the Wild Whoopers and Corps of Engineers visit to Lewis and Clark Lake to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”

By Chester McConnell, FOTWW

After receiving dozens of messages from concerned members, Friends of the Wild Whoopers decided to let you know all is OK. The virus has not infected any of our staff. Importantly, however, the virus has caused us to discontinue travel while there is a possibility of us being infected. When we are in the field, we travel an average of 1,500 miles each trip. During this travel we eat in many different restaurants, sleep in different motels each night and meet with about two dozen people. This type of living causes one to take a chance of becoming infected. So we have made the decision to halt our Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” project until conditions have improved. One good factor in this is that we are catching up on administrative responsibilities.

So, I also plan to let you know some details about our most recent joint Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) – Corps of Engineers (COE) “stopover habitat” project that some members have requested. I will begin with some details about our last field trip to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. During this trip we visited seven COE lakes, met with the staffs of each lake and made long field trips to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We examined some excellent habitats and many sites that could be improved and/or protected with a minimal amount of time and sound management.

The seven lakes we visited on this trip are Lewis and Clark Lake (NE/SD), Lake Francis Case (SD), Lake Sharpe (SD). Oahe Lake (SD/ND), Lake Sakakawea (ND), Fort Peck Lake (MO) and Pipestem Lake (ND). I will start by telling you about our trip to Lewis and Clark Lake. In the near future I plan to write a summary about the other six CO lakes we visited.

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats that FOTWW is hard at work attempting to bring to a halt. During their two 2,500 miles migration each year the whoopers must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Currently about half of the population winters off the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where they are not as safe. Continuous development along the coast is taking a serious toll on habitat.

FOTWW believes that the wild Whooping Cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population are capable of taking care of themselves with two exceptions. They need (1) humans to protect their habitats and (2) humans to stop shooting them. We firmly believe that the COE can do much to help protect and manage many “stopover habitats” on their lakes within the migration corridor.

Whooping Cranes make two 2,500 miles migrations each year. They migrate to and from their winter habitats on the Texas coast to their nesting habitats in northern Canada. During migration Whooping Cranes often stop over on private lands, wildlife areas, lakes, Indian Reservations and some military bases. However, many private lands are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming.

FOTWW contends that lands and waters on COE lakes, military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Some of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise, Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife species using the same habitats (Figure 1).

Lewis and Clark Lake
Figure 1. Deer and other wildlife species often use the same habitats as Whooping Cranes.

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 would be relatively minimal. Importantly any habitat projects deemed to be incompatible with the mission of the agencies involved would not be considered by FOTWW.

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 35 COE 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.

The COE and FOTWW Memorandum of Understanding allows us to focus on Whooping Crane habitat assessment and management recommendations on lands under the COE’s jurisdiction. We have been determining if any suitable areas could be managed, or appropriately developed to provide stopover habitats for Whooping Cranes. The next step would be to work to encourage appropriate management.

COE lakes within the 7 states migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitat”. Lewis and Clark Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable. As the crane population increases the migration corridor may also expand in width.

Lewis and Clark Lake is just one of the 35 USACE lakes that FOTWW has evaluated. It is one of the six COE lakes developed on the Missouri River that is within the center of the Whooping Crane migration corridor. Many other migratory bird species and millions of individual use the same migration corridor.

Whooping Cranes normally migrate over or near Lewis and Clark Lake during April – May (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). They normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart early to mid-morning the following day.

Mostly, during migration, they stopover on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, forage, roost and then continue their journey. Proactive techniques implemented by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.

We are aware that Lewis and Clark Lake area, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. United States Geological Survey personnel used location data acquired from 58 unique individuals fitted with platform transmitting terminals that collected global position system locations. Radio-tagged birds provided 2,158 stopover sites over 10 migrations and 5 years (2010–14) using individual Whooping Cranes. Whooping Cranes were observed in the lake vicinity several times. Also they have been recorded on several Indian Reservations along the lake.

FOTWW Wildlife Biologist Chester McConnell and FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Lewis and Clark Lake on September 10, 2019 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, COE made arrangements for our trip. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

FOTWW always reviews lake management documents to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the project. Where there is a healthy, productive environment with a diversity of plants and animals provides some evidence that the same area could be beneficial to Whooping Cranes. A summary of our review of COE documents follows:

Lewis and Clark Lake is a major reservoir in South Dakota and Nebraska located on the on the Missouri River. It has is a 31,400 surface acre reservoir during maximum pool. It is located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota on the Missouri River. The lake is approximately 28 miles in length with over 90 miles of shoreline.

In addition to providing recreational benefits for the region, Lewis and Clark Lake also provides drinking water to many communities located both in and outside of the watershed boundaries. The average annual precipitation in the watershed is 20 to 21 inches of which 77 percent usually falls in April through September. Land use in the watersheds is primarily cropland and grazing. Row crops and hay are the main crops on cultivated lands. Whooping Cranes have plenty to forage on when stopping over.

Habitat changes with the rise and fall of lake levels and affects the number of birds attracted to the reservoir in any given year. FOTWW’s review identifies how important the Lewis and Clark Lake complex is to a large variety of wildlife and fish. Bird watchers frequent Lewis and Clark as a prime area to visit. Bald eagles use the lake and nearby land as favorite habitat. Observant visitors can also spot wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and a large variety of other small birds and mammals.

Hunting is allowed on Lewis and Clark Lake property. Substantial hunting opportunities are available at Lewis and Clark SRA, which include upland game, big game and waterfowl. The lake property provided hunting opportunities for pheasant, quail, doves, deer and wild turkey.

The species listed in the federal list of threatened and endangered species are the bald eagle, which is listed as threatened, the American burying beetle, least tern, piping plover and whooping cranes which are listed as endangered.

In some areas of the lake, excessive sediment has resulted in problems. A project titled “Lewis and Clark Initial Watershed Assessment” has been evaluating the situation. The goal of the project is to locate critical portions of the watersheds draining to Lewis and Clark Lake to be targeted for detailed analysis to be conducted in cooperation with the state of Nebraska beginning in 2004.

The Keya Paha, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Ponca HUCs are all portions of the drainage that enter Lewis and Clark Lake on the Missouri River downstream of Fort Randall Dam. These drainages in combination with the Niobrara watershed in Nebraska drain approximately 10,158,000 acres, of which approximately 2,016,000 acres are located within South Dakota. Loads of suspended solids from these drainages have impaired recreation in Lewis and Clark Lake through sedimentation resulting in a reduction in the number of “useable” lake acres. The goal of this assessment is to locate critical regions in these drainages so that a more detailed study may be conducted to determine exact sources of sediment loads as well as the potential restoration alternatives.

Importantly, some of the threatened and endangered species that use Lewis and Clark Lake use the sediment bars and islands as nesting and roosting habitats.

Notably, during our review of several USACE and USFWS documents we detected only minor information about endangered Whooping Crane within COE documents. Friends of the Wild Whoopers has urged project staff to coordinate with their Omaha District officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a management plan for endangered Whooping Cranes.

Lewis and Clark Lake
Map of Lewis and Clark Lake located in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Figure 2. Phragmites is the brown colored plants in the river. Green arrows point to a small fraction of the phragmites. The plants grow in thick stands to a height of 6 to 8 feet. It is growing all across the lake on areas where shallow waters areas have formed. (See Fig. 3 photo of Phragmites). The numerous shallow water areas are caused by eroded soils from upstream areas. Lewis and Clark Lake is 30% full of sediment and increasing.
Figure 3. Phragmites growing during summer. It spreads rapidly and uses large quantities of water causing problems in some shallow lakes. There is no space for
whooping cranes or waterfowl in a thicket like this.
Figure 4. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks manage some sediment bars and islands as nesting and roosting habitats for least tern and piping plover which are listed as threatened and endangered species. Whooping Cranes which are listed as endangered also use some of these sites as “stopover habitats” to rest, forage and roost. So, while excessive sediment has created problems for some interest, it has benefits to others. Niobrara River contributes up to 60% of sediment entering Lewis and Clark Lake.
Figure 5. Helicopter making approach to the growth of phragmites in Lewis and Clark Lake. The helicopter will spray herbicide on the phragmites to kill it. The helicopter in this photo is spraying herbicide on the large growth of phragmites. If not controlled, the phragmites will take over the shallow water and wet soil areas and eliminate habitats that are used by numerous wildlife species. When the phragmites dries it will be burned to allow recovery of native plants and associated habitats. The COE and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks uses this as a major management practice for waterfowl and other wildlife that uses wetland. FOTWW was pleased to learn about the aggressive program to kill the phragmites and the use of prescribed fire to manage the area where this invasive plant was killed.
Figure 6. The prescribed fire is set and will be closely monitored by COE and Fish and Wildlife Service personnel.
Figure 7. The prescribed fire has burned all of the dead phragmites and shrubs in the burn area. The site is now prepared for additional wildlife management practices to be applied. Whooping Cranes could use the site as a “stopover habitat” in its current condition.
Figure 8. The prescribed fire has burned all of the dead phragmites and shrubs in the burn area. The site is now prepared for additional wildlife management practices to be applied. Whooping Cranes could use the site as a “stopover habitat” in its current condition.

***** 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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Wintering Whooping Crane Update, February 6, 2020

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

whooping crane abundance survey
Birds on the ground, viewed from the survey plane (original photo: Tom Stehn)

We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, and were able to fly three primary surveys and two secondary surveys. Areas surveyed stretch along the Texas coast from Matagorda to Port Aransas.  Phil Thorpe, pilot with the USFWS Migratory Birds program, flew the survey crew in a wheeled Kodiak again this year. 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 last summer. Better juvenile recruitment this past year in Canada (37) compared to 2018 (24) should result in a larger population this year.  For more information on our wintering abundance survey, click here.

Our secondary survey (on the edges of the core wintering range) is crucial in determining future expansion areas for a growing population. We are getting reports of whooping cranes in quite a variety of places outside our primary survey area this year, including a pair near Matagorda, Texas, three adults in Port Aransas, and marked birds in Colorado County.  A juvenile whooping crane marked last summer in Wood Buffalo National Park stopped migrating in Kansas, and is currently with a flock of sandhill cranes at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas NWR for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 whooping cranes 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 was not available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to view whooping cranes in publically accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted this winter from the Heron Flats viewing deck at a much closer distance than the pair at the observation tower, providing visitors a more intimate viewing experience.  You can find a map of the refuge trails here.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:

Due to wet weather, we are just getting started on prescribed burning.  Our goal is to burn approximately 13,000 acres this year, the majority of which is whooping crane habitat.  So far we have completed prescribed burns totaling 1,600 acres on the Blackjack Peninsula and plan to burn at least 900 acres more this week.

Fire crews responded to a wildfire on Matagorda Island in early December.  Although this fire was unplanned, it will provide immediate and long-term benefits to whooping cranes and other wildlife. Part of the area that burned was scheduled to be burned this winter to improve habitat for whooping cranes and other wildlife. Whooping and sandhill cranes will both feed in “blackened” or freshly burned habitat and burning woody/brush species around freshwater ponds removes cover for predators. Fire also maintains coastal prairie habitat that benefits Aplomado Falcons and other prairie-dependent species.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:

January-February-current precipitation: 4.85” @ Aransas HQ
Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 19 ppt

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Whooping Crane Survey Results: Winter 2018–2019

504 Wild Whooping Cranes Estimated at ANWR this past winter

 

Whooping Crane Population
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kevin Sims®

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have completed analysis of last winter’s aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population. “Preliminary data analysis indicated 504 whooping cranes, including 13 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas.

This is comparable with the prior winter’s estimate of 505 whooping cranes, indicating the population remained stable but did not experience the growth this year that it has the past several years. An additional 12 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 2nd year in a row that the population has topped the 500 mark. The lack of population growth last winter likely resulted from a low chick production season on the breeding grounds of northern Canada during the spring-summer of 2018.”

 

Delay in Whooping Crane survey

During winter 2018–2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued to use a Quest Kodiak aircraft and surveys were conducted in mid-February. The primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres; Figure 1) was surveyed multiple times during February 9–14, 2019. San Jose Island, West Marsh, Lamar-Tatton, Matagorda Island Central, and Welder Flats-Dewberry were surveyed 4 times and Blackjack was surveyed 5 times. Due to logistical constrains and poor weather conditions, the secondary survey areas (approximately 169,300 acres; Figure 1) were not surveyed this winter. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the survey later than planned which likely resulted in underestimates of recruitment due to late season changes in plumage coloration.

No growth this year for Whooping Crane Population

The long-term growth rate in the whooping crane population has averaged 4.5% (n = 95; 95% CI = 1.77– 6.98%). The population remained stable from winter 2017–2018 to winter 2018–2019  In summer 2018, the Canadian Wildlife Service reported 24 whooping crane chicks were fledged at Wood-Buffalo Nation Park which is lower than normal. Recruitment was low resulting in no population growth.

You can see the full report at the following link:
https://ecos.fws.gov/ServCat/DownloadFile/166739

***** 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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