The whooping crane, the majestic bird slowly making its way back from the brink of extinction, is returning to the Texas coast in record numbers, with as many as 300 expected.
White with black wingtips and crimson crowns and standing five feet tall, the cranes started to arrive in Texas in mid-November, with the rest expected by Christmas. They are part of the only self-sustaining flock in the world. The number of cranes dipped as low as 15 in 1945, and they were declared endangered in 1970.
This could be a hard winter for the endangered species, however, because a severe drought has left the marshes saltier than usual and without the abundance of plump blue crabs the birds like to eat, the San Antonio Express News reported yesterday (December 4).
Working in pairs, the cranes can be seen all along the shores of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, rooting through the mud and coming up empty.
These conditions are made worse by a toxic algae bloom in the Gulf, known as red tide.
This year’s bloom is so severe that even humans on shore are getting headaches and running noses. Fish are floating belly up across the bays and can be seen along the shoreline.
Cranes’ diets include few fish. But if the cranes have to eat a lot of dead fish to stay alive this year, they too could die, according to Dan Alonso, manager of the Aransas refuge.
“It’s killing birds as we speak,” he said about other seabirds that have been collected after dying from eating tainted fish.
Even in the bait shops, fish are dying because of the toxic water circulated through tanks. The blue crabs are so scarce that their tanks sit empty, and commercial fishermen have taken most of their pots out of the water, according to the newspaper.
“San Antonio Bay has just turned off this year,” said Leslie “Bubba” Casterline, owner of the Casterline Fish Co. and an Aransas County commissioner. “It’s almost sterile.”
Without heavy rainfall, the cranes may not find any crabs between January and March, following the deadly pattern of three years ago, Blackburn said.
“The only thing I have seen them eat is dead fish,” said Tommy Moore, who gives daily boat tours to see the cranes out of Fulton.
These conditions could bolster a federal lawsuit filed by a San Antonio group against the state of Texas over how much water is needed to sustain the species.
The outcome of the case, which goes to trial today (December 5), could further limit the allocation of water in the basins of the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers and ultimately affect San Antonio water and energy customers, the San Antonio Express News reported.
The drought, the worst one-year event on record, has decreased the flow of fresh water from the rivers into the marshes and bays where the cranes congregate for the winter before flying 2,500 miles back to their summer breeding grounds in northwestern Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.
Some biologists say the conditions in Texas this year remind them of late 2008, which was the beginning of the deadliest winter on record for the flock.
As many as 23 cranes perished then, nearly 8 percent, which was the largest die-off ever recorded, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those deaths prompted the suit against the state in federal court.
That suit, which pits environmentalists and the local governments and businesses of Aransas County against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and water suppliers, will be tried in Corpus Christi, about 40 miles from the refuge, according to the newspaper.
The Aransas Project (TAP), an environmental coalition, has accused the state of putting the cranes in harm’s way with its management of the fresh water flowing into the birds’ habitat.
“The future of the whooping crane hangs on the outcome of the trial,” said Jim Blackburn, the Houston attorney for TAP. “Federal intervention is the only chance for its long-term survival.”
The TCEQ, which governs the rights to the state’s fresh water, and other water providers are fighting to maintain the status quo, saying there’s no evidence of major losses caused by a drought three years ago.
Blackburn thinks what is needed is a holistic re-evaluation of how the state allocates water rights in the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers, which supply the vast majority of the fresh water to the estuaries and marshes where the cranes feed.
That also would help protect the commercial and recreational fishing industries, on which the economy of Aransas County depends.
But more water for the bays would mean less water for upstream users.
It’s now in its second year; it’s no longer a juvenile. But this one particular whooping crane doesn’t know where Aransas is. Its parents never showed it.