By David Sikes of the Caller Times
For the endangered whooping crane, choosing a rest stop each night during its 2,500 mile migratory journey is becoming increasingly difficult.
So the U.S. military invited them to bunk with the troops. Chester McConnell, president of Friends of the Wild Whoopers Friends of the Wild Whoopers , a nonprofit based in Alabama, said all he had to do was ask military officials for help. McConnell believes the nearly 50 Army, Navy, Air Force and National Guard bases and camps along the crane’s migration corridor harbor enough wetland wilderness areas to help keep the world’s only wild flock of whoopers healthy and growing for a very long time.
Establishing these rest and refueling stations for the cranes is possible, in part, through the U.S. Department of Defense Partners in Flight program Partners in Flight , a federally funded habitat-based management effort. The program’s mission is to help species at risk, to keep common birds common and to engage in voluntary conservation partnerships for birds and bird habitats.
McConnell met with military wildlife biologists to demonstrate simple and cost effective ways to create or improve habitat for the cranes. Biologist Brian Knapp, with the Texas Military Forces Adjutant General’s Department in Austin, said the whooper group understands how conservation goals for the cranes can be compatible with the military objectives of the installations.
Winging their way over six states without stopping is not an option for the iconic cranes. Each individual bird, standing 5 feet tall with a 7 foot wingspan, must rest and feed a dozen or more times during its twice annual flight between Canada and South Texas, biologists say.
The number and need for stopovers is greater for monogamous nesting pairs and their fledglings, which are 4-5 months old when they fly to Texas for the first time. And today’s patchwork of cities, suburbs, farms and rural stretches of woods and brush looks very different from the more inviting landscapes they crossed 100 years ago, said Liz Smith, director of the Texas Whooping Crane Program with the International Crane Foundation.
“There’s way more agricultural land than before and about 50 percent less of the pothole wetlands, which the cranes prefer because of the abundance of high protein invertebrates for them to eat. They’ll eat corn, but they can’t digest it well so it’s not nearly as nutritious.”
McConnell said the increasingly popular practice of converting marginal cropland into grain fields — much of it involving corn for ethanol — has created a more hostile and less nutritious landscape for the cranes. He points to the recent drought credited with killing more than 20 whoopers during their 2008-09 stay in Texas as dramatic evidence of the flock’s vulnerability to habitat degradation.
And during those lean years the flock demonstrated its ability to adapt by staging for months in nontraditional areas, where food and water was more available. Their habit in late summer and early fall is to leave Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park where they nest and fly to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding marshes north of Rockport, where they stay until March or April.
But drought conditions in South Texas forced some of the birds to stop at Granger Lake northeast of Austin or near El Campo. As the flock grows, they are expected to outgrow traditional haunts. Sub-adult cranes will likely venture into coastal areas outside the refuge, according to Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator at the Aransas refuge. And because the flock is growing, so is the need for additional supporting habitat along the migration route.
“This is a very worthwhile and innovative endeavor,” Harrell said. “It’s certainly a niche that hasn’t been fully explored and (the Department of Defense) has a number of military installations that have potential whooping crane habitat throughout the migration corridor. I’ve encouraged Chester and Friends of the Wild Whoopers to continue pursuing this.”
This past week, birders and biologists spotted nine whoopers near the refuge. Based on nesting success, the Coastal Bend could host a record 330 cranes this year. Whooping crane numbers sunk to about 16 in 1941 after years of habitat destruction. The Aransas flock remains the only wild migrating population of whooping cranes.
Much money and effort is spent to enhance and conserve the flock’s nesting and wintering habitats, but until now there’s been little focus on the migration corridor where the flock can spend two to four months of its year, McConnell said.
And the need for land is great, Smith said. Each family of cranes requires 300-500 acres of territory over winter. They need a much wider area when they’re nesting in Canada. The birds’ territorial needs during brief stopovers are more relaxed, Smith said. But only a fraction of the flock uses a given location during the crane’s staggered migration, which means they can be scattered over hundreds of stopover spots during the journey.
“One problem is that roughly half of the population currently uses private lands as their winter habitats and nearly the entire population uses private lands during their migration,” McConnell said. “This is a major concern for whooping crane managers and the private conservation groups that support them because private land is subject to development and cultivation.”
For the whoopers to be removed from the endangered list requires a self-sustaining population of 250 breeding pairs and 500 sub-adults or 1,000 total cranes. Achieving and sustaining this number is the goal of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Whooping Crane Recovery Plan. The friends organization’s Whooping Crane Stopover Habitat Project mirrors this aim.
So far, McConnell and Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, director of Conservation Programs for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, have visited eight of the 46 bases along the 200 mile wide corridor, which is within North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Within those eight bases and camps, they’ve identified 43 wetland sites that could be made ready with little or no effort. Perhaps hundreds of additional sites would require a little more work, McConnell said.
“Give me a brush hog and $500 and I could make many of these ponds into ideal stopover habitats,” McConnell said. “And the beauty is that the funding is already there. The military would pay for minor enhancements, which in most cases would be tied in with normal management practices such as mowing and controlled burning.”
McConnell and Chavez-Ramirez came up with criteria for the ideal stopover site, which they use to rate each location. Ponds should be one to 15 acres with banks that gradually slope. Land surrounding ponds should be relatively clear of trees and brush to provide adequate sight distances for spotting predators.
Property surrounding these small wetlands and shallow ponds should be relatively level to accommodate lengthy takeoffs and landings. Cranes prefer roosting ponds that are somewhat free of clutter, with little or no thick submerged vegetation and branches rising from the surface.
The sites also should be remote. They recommend each be at least 200 yards from roads, active structures or other human disturbances. And no power lines, communication towers or windmills can be within the landing zones or glide paths of ponds.
McConnell said the final two criteria should be easily satisfied because many of the installations have vast stretches of unused wilderness. Fort Hood near Killeen may be the most promising site visited so far because McConnell said whoopers have been spotted on several ponds there. Next would be Fort Sill in Oklahoma, which has several year-round ponds that would require minor work.
Camp Swift, in Bastrop County, Camp Bowie in the Texas Hill Country and Camp Maxey in Lamar Country are National Guard camps in Texas with ponds roughly along the center of the migration corridor. McConnell said each of these have good natural resource programs and personnel conducive to a cooperative relationship with the Whooping Crane Stopover Habitat Project team.
Reprinted with permission. Original article, “Whooper friends seek military solutions to habitat loss” on Caller Times’ website is located here.
***** 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.