Whooping Cranes Migration to Texas Underway

Endangered whooping cranes have begun their annual 2,400-mile fall migration from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada to southern Texas.

Whooping Cranes fly with long necks and long legs fully extended. Wingbeats are slow and steady. (Source: TPWD)
Whooping Cranes fly with long necks and long legs fully extended. Wingbeats are slow and steady. (Source: TPWD)

As the rare birds approach the Lone Star State, a citizen science initiative is inviting Texas residents and visitors to report whooper sightings, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) news release.

Texas Whooper Watch is a volunteer monitoring program that is a part of TPWD’s Texas Nature Trackers program. The program was developed to help the agency learn more about Whooping Cranes and their winter habitats in Texas.

Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in 1942, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas.

This year, some of the whooping cranes from an experimental flock in Louisiana spent most of the summer months in Texas, and the Whooper Watch volunteers were able to provide valuable information about these birds to TPWD, Louisiana Game and Fish, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

This year biologists expect Whooping Cranes to start arriving in Texas in late October or early November.

The wingtips (primary feathers) are black in Whooping Cranes, but black does not extend all the way along the wing edge to the body. Wingspan is 7-1/2 feet. (Source: TPWD)
The wingtips (primary feathers) are black in Whooping Cranes, but black does not extend all the way along the wing edge to the body. Wingspan is 7-1/2 feet. (Source: TPWD)

Texas Whooper Watch will also help improve the accuracy of surveys on the wintering grounds, as the growth of the flock has made traditional census methods more difficult.

Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria.

During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting (71 percent of all observations) is fewer than three birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane.

Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. The cranes are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.

Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whooping cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations.

Sightings can be reported to whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” in order to collect more detailed data may also contact the TPWD atwhoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999).

Adult birds have bodies that are pure white except for a red patch on the head and a black “mustache.” Juvenile birds will have rusty feathers with the white. (Source: TPWD)
Adult birds have bodies that are pure white except for a red patch on the head and a black “mustache.” Juvenile birds will have rusty feathers with the white. (Source: TPWD)

Details

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is one of over 545 national wildlife refuges spanning the United States and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Aransas NWR was originally established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 as a “refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife…”

The Refuge is world renowned for hosting the largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes each winter.

The 16 mile auto tour loop is open.

Phone: (361) 286-3559

Website: fws.gov

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Tom Stehn

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Eyes on Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Chihuahuan Desert vegetation—bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, yuccas, sotols, and more—covers most of the terrain. But the Rio Grande and its lush floodplains and steep, narrow canyons form almost a park of their own. So do the Chisos Mountains; up to 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, they harbor pine, juniper, and oak, as well as deer, mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife.

The National Park Service operates three developed front-country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground (with full hook-ups) is also located at Rio Grande Village.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge's grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. One of the rarest creatures in North America, the whooping crane is making a comeback from a low of 16 birds in 1941.

Each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh. Productive tidal flats provide clams and crabs for the whoopers to eat. These cranes can often be seen from the observation tower from late October to mid-April.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through the refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Additional activities include hiking, birding, picnicking, and fishing. Six leisurely hiking trails totaling 4.3 miles are available.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chain of five missions that were established along the San Antonio River during the 18th century stands as a reminder of Spain’s most successful attempt to extend its New World influence and control. Representing both church and state, these missions were charged with converting the local Native Americans, collectively called Coahuiltecans, into devout Catholics and productive members of Spanish society.

More than just churches on the Spanish Colonial frontier, the missions also served as vocational and educational centers, economic enterprises involved in agricultural and ranching endeavors and regional trade.

Before the Spanish came, there were no horses in Texas and no gunfire, except for the raiding Apache. A vast frontier had never been touched by a wheel or felt the blade of an iron ax.

Among other contributions, the missions planted the roots of ranching in Texas. Indian vaqueros tended huge herds of cattle, goats, and sheep. They marked stock with branding irons like the ones used in Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 10 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.

—Davy Crockett

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Great Birding Destinations

For great birding destinations, you can’t beat national wildlife refuges.

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges situated along the country’s four main flyways—Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific—are natural bird magnets. Some refuges have been designated Globally Important Birding Areas—sites that provide essential habitat for one or more bird species.

Which refuges are best for birding? The answer depends on where you RV and the species of birds you wish to see.

Following are five of our favorite national wildlife refuges.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Mild winters, bay waters, and abundant food draw more than 400 bird species to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Among them: the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds. The only wild flock of whooping cranes makes Aransas Refuge its winter home. You can hear the birds trumpet across the marsh.

In winter, many other birds feed on fish, blue crab, and shellfish in the coastal marsh. The refuge’s oak hills provide important habitat for neotropical birds, such as orioles, grosbeaks, and buntings, migrating between North and Central America.

For Aransas National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge thrills birders in late fall and winter when sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Arctic geese arrive by the tens of thousands.

At dawn, hushed visitors gather to watch geese and cranes lift off as one from their marsh roosts. At dusk, visitors gather to watch the birds return.

Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Festival of the Cranes (this year’s event is November 19-24, 2013) features many birding tours, talks and wildlife experiences for all levels of experience.

For Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the southernmost stretch of the Rio Grande is a top birding destination, home to species such as green jays, chachalacas, and great kiskadees.

The refuge is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through the area on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the groove-billed ani, reach the northern limit of their range in this area.

Hundreds of thousands of migrating raptors—including broadwing hawks, northern harriers, and peregrine falcons—fly over the refuge in spring and fall. Santa Ana Refuge’s rarest raptors, the hook-billed kite and gray hawk, are seen occasionally.

Abundant spring warblers include: golden-winged warbler, magnolia warbler, northern and tropical parula, American redstart, palm warbler, and yellow-breasted chat.

An ebird Trail Tracker station shows visitors what birds are being seen when and where.

For Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge species list, click here.

… Continue reading →

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Hundreds of bird species, migrating to and from Central and South America, funnel through Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of Texas, making this Central Flyway starting point one of North America’s most biologically diverse regions.

Many bird species also reach their northernmost range here along the Rio Grande. More than 250,000 ducks use the refuge in peak season in November; an estimated 80 percent of the North American population of redhead ducks winter in the area.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge is a vital stopover for migrating neotropical songbirds, such as painted buntings, Bullock’s oriole, and various warblers and hummingbirds.

The refuge is also well known for its raptors, including migrating peregrine falcons in the spring and fall. The once-rare aplomado falcon can be seen hunting the refuge’s grasslands.

For Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on Florida’s east east coast near Cape Canaveral, is world-famous as a birding destination. More than 320 species have been documented here.

From December to February, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds use the refuge as a rest stop or winter in refuge impoundments. During warmer months, resident wading birds, shore birds, songbirds and raptors forage in refuge marshes, open waters and forests.

The Scrub Ridge and Pine Flatwoods trails offer your best bets for seeing the Florida scrub jay, a species found only in Florida. The Oak Hammock and Palm Hammock trails provide great viewing for a variety of songbirds and raptors. Two other hiking trails—Cruickshank and Wild Birds trail—provide wildlife viewing platforms and photography blinds.

For Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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50 Things To See or Do See in Your RV Before You Die

You might have read it or flipped through it or seen it on a shelf and thought, “I should pick that up.”

The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The first thing many visitors notice about the Alamo is its small size, especially when compared with the buildings of the surrounding city. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s the national bestseller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

The list, which includes everything from Asian sailing excursions to African horseback riding sites, might be mouthwatering to the wannabe world traveler. For most, however, the financial ability to travel the world simply isn’t there.

But have no fear. Sometimes the best adventures are those in your own backyard.

Here, in alphabetical order, are 50 things to do or see in your RV before you die:

Acadia National Park, Maine

People have been drawn to the rugged coast of Maine throughout history. Thanks to the robber barons that used the park as a private playground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the islands of Acadia have been preserved in a pristine state.

Acadia’s largest island, Mount Desert Island, encompasses a range of geological diversity, including rocky Atlantic shoreline, lush forests of spruce and fir, dozens of lakes and ponds, and rugged granite hills. Today visitors come to Acadia to hike granite peaks, bike historic carriage roads, or relax and enjoy the scenery.

The Alamo, Texas

One hundred seventy-six years ago the Alamo was the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Texas Revolution where 250 or so Texian and Tejano defenders held off an estimated 1,500 Mexican soldiers for 13 days.

The Alamo is remembered as a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds—a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For this reason the Alamo remains hallowed ground and the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.”

If you have never visited this sacred shrine, you haven’t really visited Texas.

Remember the Alamo!

Continue reading →

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, New Mexico

Each October, New Mexico skies are full of bold blues, imperial reds, and vibrant yellows. The event is the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot-air balloon event in the world. This extravaganza takes place from the first weekend through the second weekend in October—this year’s festival is from October 6-14—and attracts hundreds of hot-air balloonists from around the world.

After you’ve been to the Fiesta, it will be easy to see why New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.

Continue reading →

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Searching for the Whooping Cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Searching for the Whooping Cranes in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. In fact, each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches Park is a geological wonderland and one of Utah’s most accessible parks. The extraordinary features of the park create a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms, and textures that is unlike any other in the world. An awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations dot its landscape.

The greatest density of natural arches in the world occurs in Arches which preserves more than 2,000 imposing natural sandstone arches—including the world-famous and much-photographed Delicate Arch.

Continue reading →

Big Bend National Park, Texas

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Arches is renown for an awe-inspiring combination of arches, cliffs, stone spires, and other dramatic rock formations. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of an 8-part series on 50 Places to RV Before You Die

Worth Pondering…

“My favorite thing is to go where I have never been,” wrote photographer Diane Arbus, and so it is with us.

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Endangered Whooping Cranes Winding Down Unusual Year

It’s been an unusual year for whooping cranes in Texas and the endangered species’ spring migration is the latest example.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

Researchers report several whooping crane families initiated their spring migration nearly a month earlier than usual, with some birds having already reached South Dakota, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) news release.

Texans are asked to report sightings of these large white birds as they progress along their migration route northward from the coast through Central Texas and the Wichita Falls area.

After a winter distribution that surprised biologists and kept birders enchanted with unprecedented sighting opportunities for one of North America’s most ancient bird species, the unusually early start of the migration to nesting grounds in Canada does not surprise TPWD biologist Lee Ann Linam.

“This winter seemed to produce a ‘perfect storm’ of mild winter weather, reduced food sources on the Texas coast, and crowding in an expanding whooping crane population, which led whooping cranes to explore new wintering areas,” Linam said.

“Those same conditions have likely provided the impetus for an early start of their 1500-mile spring migration.”

Texas provides wintering habitat for the only self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world. Traditionally, whooping cranes spend December through March in coastal wetlands on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, between Rockport and Port Lavaca.

Whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles a year. (Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service)

In recent years whoopers have slowly expanded their winter range—usually using coastal marshlands adjacent to already occupied areas.

However, in 2011-12 whoopers made significant expansions southward and westward of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and one whooping crane apparently spent the winter with sandhill cranes in upland habitats near El Campo.

Even more significantly, nine whooping cranes, including six adults and three chicks, spent most of the winter near Granger Lake in Central Texas, and one family group of whooping cranes only traveled as far south as Kansas before heading back north to spend most of the winter in Nebraska.

The unprecedented shifts may be indicators of both bad news and good news for the Texas flock, which is thought to now number about 300 birds, according to Linam.

“We are concerned about the health of our coastal estuaries and long-term declines in blue crabs, one of the traditional primary food sources for this population of whooping cranes,” she said.

“At the same time, these cranes seem to be showing adaptability as the increasing population may be causing crowding in traditional habitats and drought may be producing less than ideal habitat conditions. I think it’s a good sign that whooping cranes are exploring and thriving in new wintering areas.”

This winter, birders and wildlife watchers in Texas have helped the state track some of the movements of whooping cranes, and Linam is asking Texans to be on the lookout for whoopers during the spring migration, which may extend through mid-April in Texas.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet tall. They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night.

Whooping cranes mate for life. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than 4-5 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller and darker sandhill crane.

Anyone sighting a whooping crane can help by reporting it to TPWD at 1-800-792-1112 x4644 or 1-512-656-1222.

Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs.

Related Stories

Worth Pondering…
In the end, we only conserve what we love.

We only love what we understand.

We will understand what we are taught.

—Baba Dioum, Sengalese poet

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Whooping Crane Arrival at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Most of the estimated 300 whooping cranes of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population have now arrived on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast, the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) reports.

Whooping Crane yearling. By the time they reach one year of age, they are difficult to distinguish from their parents. Only a few brown feathers remain on the head and neck. (Credit: whoopingcrane.com)

The whoopers began arriving on the Texas Coastal Bend and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge wintering grounds in late October according to Dan Alonso, Refuge Manager. Regrettably the refuge habitat is suffering from the long drought that affects most of the state of Texas. “Habitat conditions appear to be somewhat challenging for whooping cranes this year, specifically with regard to drought and salinity aspects” advises refuge manager Alonso.

Salinity levels in the San Antonia Bay are currently 35.3 parts per thousand, resulting in many cranes frequently using inland freshwater sources according to refuge officials.

“To date, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has received 14 inches of precipitation, which is approximately 23 inches below the annual average” according to Alonso.

In addition, harmful algae blooms, known as red tide, have occurred along the Texas coast. Red tide toxins can accumulate in fish, oysters, and clams in the bays, possibly causing illness and/or death to cranes and other wildlife consuming toxic seafood. “Fortunately, there are no known reports of cranes dying from the red tide in past outbreaks but biologists continue to keep a vigilant watch. Fortunately cooler temperatures have helped reduce red tide blooms”, refuge officials say.

Aransas biologists made their initial plane flight of the season on December 8 to check out the first whooping crane mortality discovered on Aransas according to a refuge report. One juvenile crane was found dead from unknown causes. The carcass has been sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for disease testing.

Whooping cranes mate for life. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

Aransas officials say the goal of the first flight was also to assess the general distribution and condition of the whooping crane population. During the flight, biologists observed a significant number of cranes in the uplands, as opposed to marshlands where they are typically found.  Field observations have resulted in biologists finding evidence of wolfberry and blue crab remains in crane scat. It appears that cranes are utilizing some resources within the marsh.

A second flight to estimate the crane population will be scheduled for January 2011 according to refuge personnel.

Recognizing the potential problems associated with the extreme drought conditions along the entire Texas coast, Aransas officials spent the summer months planning for the return of the whoopers. This included initiating work to maximize freshwater output from existing wells located throughout the refuge. And the refuge has had some valuable assistance from the private sector.

The Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge, a non-profit organization of volunteers are dedicated to supporting the refuge in its goal of enhancing habitat and wildlife. They have been instrumental in raising funds for converting windmills to solar pump energy. This conversion is intended to provide a more reliable fresh water supply for wildlife.

Whooping Crane adult with red crest. The red on the head of adult whooping cranes and sandhill cranes is actually skin. The feathers are reduced to tiny hair-like structures. The size of this red “comb”, and the color intensity, can be “adjusted” by the bird, to be used as a signaling device—indicating to other cranes its place in the social hierarchy, and its “mood”. (Credit: whoopingcrane.com)

Refuge personnel are also planning to prescribe burn over 9,700 acres to provide additional food resources for cranes. The refuge recently conducted its first burn of the season, consisting of 654 acres of whooping crane habitat. Refuge officials reported that the cranes made immediate use of the prescribed burned areas.

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association believes that Aransas officials are doing everything within their capabilities to compensate for the “challenging” habitat conditions on the refuge. Mother Nature has dealt Aransas Refuge and most of the state of Texas a serious blow with the long term drought.

After a successful nesting season, with approximately 37 chicks fledging from a record of 75 nests in August 2011, biologists anticipate that the flock size could reach record levels this winter, possibly 300. The large whooper population will now face degraded habitat conditions and hopefully they will overcome the taxing situation.

Details

Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA)

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association (WCCA) is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1966.

Address: 8803 Pine Run, Spanish Fort, AL 36527

Website: whoopingcrane.com

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is one of over 545 national wildlife refuges spanning the United States and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Aransas NWR was originally established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 as a “refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife…”

The Refuge is world renowned for hosting the largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes each winter.

The 16 mile auto tour loop is open.

Special Notice: The observation tower is currently being replaced. Construction is underway, and is expected to last until the end of the year.

Phone: (361) 286-3559

Website:fws.gov

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Tom Stehn

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Whooping Cranes Face New Crises

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.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

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.”

Whooping cranes mate for life. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

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.

A whooping crane feeds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Jerry Lara/ express-news.net)

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.

Related

Worth Pondering…

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.

—Tom Stehn

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Whoopers Crane Their Necks toward Texas

Whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles a year. (Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service)

Things are looking up for the endangered whooping crane. The bird made news three years ago when a record number of crane deaths were reported during drought conditions on the Texas Gulf Coast. But according to state and federal biologists, flock numbers have rebounded, and a new record high number of cranes should start arriving on the Texas coast later this month, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) news release (October 26).

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes rebounded to 264 in the winter of 2009-10, back from 247 at the end of the 2008-09 winter, reported U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn. With 46 chicks fledging from a record 74 nests in August 2010 the flock size should reach record levels this fall—expected to be somewhere around 290. Once numbering only 21 birds on earth, the previous population high was 270 in the fall of 2009.

Migration Is In Full Swing
Northerly winds accompanying a Canadian cold front the week of October 17 moved whooping cranes south from their summer nesting area in northwestern Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park toward their wintering grounds on the salt flats and marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Whooping cranes commence their fall migration south to Texas in mid-September and begin the spring migration north to Canada in late March or early April. Whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles a year.

Records indicate that the majority of cranes pass through Kansas between October 17 and November 10 and south through Texas from late October through the end of November.

Whooping cranes mate for life. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

As of October 19, two cranes were sighted as far south as northern Texas.

Additionally, there was a single whooper observed at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, near Stafford in central Kansas, the same evening, reports Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) in a news release (October 27).

The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor that extends through Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth, and southward to their central Gulf Coast wintering grounds. Their flight path takes them over such Texas cities as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria.

This flock of whooping cranes represents the last remaining “natural” flock in the wild, and, according to Lee Ann Linam, TPWD biologist, Texas plays an important role in the species’ future recovery.

“Under good conditions, Texas’ coastal wetlands provide a variety and abundance of food and fresh water that normally lead to excellent survival of whoopers over the winter,” Linam said. “Such excellent winter survival has greatly aided the species’ amazing comeback.”

Sighting a whooper is a special experience for both casual and avid bird watchers.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. Whooping cranes are white with rust-colored patches on top and back of head, lack feathers on both sides of the head, yellow eyes, and long, black legs and bills. Their primary wing feathers are black but are visible only in flight.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They have a wingspan of 7.5 feet. (Credit: Earl Nottingham/TPWD)

They fly with necks and legs outstretched. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than four-to-five birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill cranes.

Whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws.

Whooping cranes mate for life, but will accept a new mate if one dies. They can live up to 24 years in the wild. The mated pair shares brooding duties; either the male or the female is always on the nest. Generally, one chick survives. It can leave the nest while quite young, but is still protected and fed by its parents. Chicks are rust-colored when they hatch; at about four months, chicks’ feathers begin turning white. By the end of their first migration, they are brown and white, and as they enter their first spring, their plumage is white with black wing tips.

Worth Pondering…
In the end, we only conserve what we love.

We only love what we understand.

We will understand what we are taught.

—Baba Dioum, Sengalese poet

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