Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 15, 2016

Wintering Whooping Crane Update

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Whooping crane at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.
Whooping crane family at Aransas National WIldlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims.

We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, flying nearly six surveys. Unfortunately, we were plagued with poor flying conditions throughout the survey period. Of the nine days we had pilots and planes available, only five days (Dec. 9, 10, 11, 13, 14) offered safe enough conditions to fly. Of those five days, only two days (Dec. 9 and 13) had good flying weather most of the day, allowing for complete surveys. Fog, rain, low ceilings and high winds all contributed to poor flying conditions. Fortunately, we had two pilots and planes from our Migratory Birds program and four observers available, allowing us to fly more than one survey a day.

Prep for Whooping Crane survey
Aransas NWR biologist Diana Iriarte and Migratory Birds Program pilot biologist Terry Liddick preparing for the first whooping crane survey of the season

Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our Migratory Birds program, served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cessna 206. This year Phil Thorpe also served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wheeled Kodiak. Observers were Wade Harrell, Jena Moon (Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist), Doug Head(Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist) and Stephen LeJeune (Chenier Plains Refuge Complex Fire Program). Doug Head (Refuge Inventory and Management biologist) served as survey coordinator.

Whooping Crane abundance survey results to be released in a few months

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:
We observed whooping cranes using four units of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton and Lamar) and 3 Texas coastal counties (Aransas, Calhoun and Matagorda).

  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in good condition with adequate freshwater resources. Northern portions of the primary survey area (Welder Flats, Matagorda Island Central) appeared to have much more standing freshwater than southern portions of the primary survey area (Blackjack, Lamar-Tatton), presumably due to higher rainfall totals over the last couple months. Coastal marshes had higher than normal water levels due to high tides in the early part of the survey; however tides fell to normal levels this week.
  • We observed significant amounts of water hyacinth, an invasive freshwater plant, floating in San Antonio Bay, presumably having been flushed out of the Guadalupe River after the last flood event in November. Rainfall in November and December has provided positive freshwater inflows into local estuaries.
  • This year we did not have as many large group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in our primary survey blocks, so it is possible that many of the subadult groups we observed in the past few years have successfully paired.We observed at least one family group that included two juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • Due to poor flying conditions, most of our secondary areas did not get surveyed, but we did have one survey over the Mad Island and Matagorda Peninsula secondary areas. The Mad Island secondary survey area had one family group and two additional adult whooping cranes detected.
  • A family group of whooping cranes was reported in a rice field near Garwood, TX on December 8th. This area has had whooping crane use the last several years and is well outside (north) of our survey area.
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well, including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands, agricultural fields and open-water bay edges.

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 from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough. We consistently observed a family group of whooping crane in the Mustang Lake salt marsh in front of the observation tower, so you have an excellent opportunity to view whooping crane behavior with a juvenile in tow in their natural habitat.

Whooping Crane abundance survey a collective effort

I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Joe Saenz, Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort; Doug Head, Refuge Inventory & Monitoring biologist as survey coordinator; Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and dispatch; and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.

We will be flying some additional surveys in February in order to complete our survey of secondary areas and train new observers.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:
No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter; however, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack
Unit, Tatton Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

Current refuge conditions

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:
November precipitation: 2.57” @ Aransas HQ

December precipitation (as of 12/15): 2.62” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 13 parts per thousand


***** 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.

wind farm

Wintering Whooping Crane Update

February 22, 2015

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

It continues to look like a banner year in terms of habitat conditions, with the Refuge having a greater amount of freshwater on the landscape than we have seen in several years. Fall and winter rains are slowly moving us in the right direction. Whooping Cranes have responded to these conditions by spending more time in the coastal marsh, foraging on the relatively abundant blue crabs and other food resources. While we have still seen some Whooping Crane use of inland habitats this year, that trend is definitely down from the peak of the drought 2 seasons ago.

whooping crane update
Photo by Chuck Hardin

Visitors to the Refuge and those observing Whooping Cranes from boat tours have been in a good position this year to observe use of the traditional coastal marsh habitat. We’ve had some outstanding weather lately, and I encourage everyone to come out and visit us before the Whooping Cranes start heading back North in late March. Many of you will be happy to know that we have reinitiated our Refuge bus tours for February and March. Tours are first-come, first-served, and visitors must register in the visitor center the day of the tour. The schedule is as follows:

Thursday, 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.

Friday, 1:00 – 3:00 p.m.

Saturday, 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Sunday, 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

Information on Whooping Crane Death Being Sought

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Texas Parks & Wildlife are seeking information about the death of a Whooping Crane. The carcass of the bird was found on January 4. For more information, please see the press release.

Training Surveys & GoPro Video

We were able to fly some training surveys on January 5-6 with our new Refuge Biologist Keith Westlake and Ecological Services biologist Frank Weaver. We are still working through the best way to utilize GoPro Camera technology in our survey efforts, but have some clips of how things look 200 feet above the marsh. We’ll be uploading the survey clips on our Facebook page, so check it out in the coming week.

GPS tracking study & other Whooping Crane observations

While we have not done any additional marking of Whooping Cranes this winter, we are still consistently tracking 20 GPS marked Whooping Cranes for this study. They also have bi-color bands on the leg opposite of the leg with the transmitter.

If you happen to see a marked bird, please report it to us with as much information as you can (i.e. Red/Black left leg, GPS right leg, location, other birds in the same area, etc.)

Whooping Cranes outside the traditional wintering area that have been reported to Texas Whooper Watch include a single adult bird associated with a group of Sandhill Cranes in Eastern Williamson County, a pair of adult Whoopers near the town of Refugio, and a pair of adults with 2 juveniles in Northwest Matagorda County, Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:

The Refuge successfully conducted 3 burns this winter, 2 on the Blackjack Peninsula along East Shore Road (primary Whooping Crane habitat) and one on Matagorda Island. Total acreage burned was more than 12,000 acres.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:

December precipitation: 2.95” @ Aransas HQ

January precipitation: 2.85” @ Aransas HQ

February precipitation (as of Feb. 22): 0.93” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 24 ppt


***** 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. logo

Rewards Offered For Information on Death of Whooping Crane in Aransas County, TX

by Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) will pay a reward not to exceed $10,000 to anyone who provides information which leads to the arrest and conviction of any individuals who are responsible for the death of a Whooping Crane believed to have occurred during December 2014 in Aransas County, Texas. The partially decomposed body of the Whooping Crane was recovered by Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPDW) game wardens in Aransas County, Texas on Sunday, January 4, 2015. The dead crane was found near a duck blind located in the Aransas Bay system close to Sand Lake. A local hunting guide originally discovered the crane and contacted Game Wardens.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department areWhooper-single-wadeing-hr_076-021-300x215 continuing to seek information about the dead whooping crane.

The Service is also offering a reward in the amount of $2,500 and TPWD is contributing $1,000 for information about the death of the crane. According to the Service, several other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), are also offering up reward money for this effort.

The reward will be issued if the death of the whooping crane is determined to be a criminal act and the information provided leads to the criminal conviction of the person(s) responsible.

Necropsy results show that the whooping crane may have been handled after death.

Anyone with information about the whooping crane’s death is urged to come forward. Information can be provided to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Houston Office of Law Enforcement at (281) 876-1520, or Operation Game Thief at 1-800-792-GAME (4263). Callers may remain anonymous.

Whooping cranes are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  Penalties for harming or killing a crane can range up to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in federal prison.

Whooping cranes almost became extinct with only 16 remaining in the 1940s. Through concerted recovery efforts there are now an estimated 304 cranes in the population that winters in Texas. Standing about 5 feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest flying bird in North America.

The purpose of the $10,000 reward is to encourage the public to share information they might have about criminal activities involving Whooping Cranes. Federal, State, Provincial, and other public law enforcement personnel, and criminal accomplices who turn “states” evidence to avoid prosecution, shall not be eligible for this reward. If more than one informant is key to solving a specific case, the reward will be equally divided between the informants.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers will continue to provide rewards for killing of whooping cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock in accordance with the goals in our mission statement. We invite individuals and other conservation organizations to join with us to establish a reward fund. All donor participants will be acknowledged unless they request to be anonymous. Unfortunately FOTWW’s bank account is very limited and we ask you to do your part.

Please contribute to our “Reward Fund” today by donating or joining  Friends of the Wild Whoopers. Click here.

You may also click on the “Donate” button below..

 ***** 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. logo



Whooping cranes fly south to increased refuge area

Northern Journal
Environment — October 6, 2014 at 8:30 PMFrom

Oil spills, increasingly salinated water threaten birds’ winter habitat


From now on, the Wood Buffalo whooping cranes will have extra room to stretch their wings while down in their wintering habitat thanks to the acquisition of new parks land.
Photo: Klaus Nigge From now on, the Wood Buffalo whooping cranes will have extra room to stretch their wings while down in their wintering habitat thanks to the acquisition of new parks land.

While the whooping cranes were nesting in their summer homes at Wood Buffalo National Park over the summer, their advocates were working hard to ensure an even larger winter habitat continues to meet their needs.

In a major purchase, the state-run Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took hold of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch, which they hope to turn into a wildlife park with dedicated refuge space.

Wade Harrell, a conservationist with US Fish and Wildlife Services, said the new property is located directly across from the whooping crane’s winter home at the National Aransas Wildlife Refuge, which stretches across 115,000 acres of wetlands and is protected by nearby Matagorda Island.

“With the growing population, we’ve seen them use a broader array of habitat types than just the coastal marsh,” Harrell said of the birds, whose population increased to 304 as of this spring. “The last few years we’ve seen a few whooping cranes actually winter on a freshwater reservoir about two miles inland from the coast with different food and vegetation.”

Harrell said the acquisition of Powderhorn Ranch means the state is providing a wider range of safe habitat for the species by establishing one of the few zones along the coast that isn’t privately owned.

“The reason they’re moving off refuge is that it’s basically full; it’s housing as many whooping cranes as is probably possible,” Harrell said. “Our challenge is making sure we try to stay one step ahead of them and try to conserve quality habitat that they can go out and find and use.”

Over the summer, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission accepted the ranch as a donation from a triad of conservation organizations, including the department’s fundraising nonprofit group Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF), as well as the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund.

A majority of funding for the $50-million deal came from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which will cover about $34.5 million to be doled out to the TPWF over the next three years. The funds came from a $2.5-billion pocket overseen by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, created with money from BP and Transocean as a part of plea agreements after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, resulting in a devastating oil spill.

The remaining amount will be raised through private donations and grants. So far, about $43 million of the total cost has been acquired.

Salt water, oil spills pose concerns

Just as wildfires and oilsands pose risks for whooping cranes as they head north for the summer, the species encounters challenges with its winter habitat, as well.

An ongoing drought has created salty conditions for the Aransas refuge, limiting the birds’ access to fresh drinking water and fostering overly-salinated waters that are unable to sustain local ecosystems. A low annual average of 15 inches of rain adds to the concern, but according to one biologist, human activity in the region has the most significant impacts on the ecosystem’s vitality.

“Texas is, in many areas, highly developed out of businesses that use water; the farmers use a lot of water and residents in the town use lots of water,” said Chester McConnell, president of the conservation group Friends of the Wild Whoopers. “They’re taking lots of fresh water out of the rivers before it can get down to the estuaries where the whooping cranes live. Also, they have about 5,000 major man-made reservoirs in Texas, so the challenge there is they’re stopping lots of water from getting into the rivers.”

McConnell said the water bodies he is most concerned for are the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, both of which flow into the refuge. For years, The Aransas Project (TAP) conservation group has been in and out of US federal court with the state to eliminate the industrial developments impacting the waterways. The case is currently being appealed by TAP after their original win was reversed.

Harrell said an oil spill at Matagorda Island also caused some concerns for the refuge habitat during April of last year, but with careful and efficient coordination, the mess was quickly cleaned with little impact on local wildlife.
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***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. ***** logo