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Whooping Cranes Reach the Texas Gulf Coast
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Aransas, Texas

November 3, 1997

Whooping Crane
Migration Route

Each fall, the world's only wild flock of Whooping Cranes travels 2,500 miles from northern Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. The entire flock will spend the winter at a single refuge near Austwell, Texas. Here's news about their journey from Tom Stehn, Refuge Biologist at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Tom waits anxiously this time of year, watching the skies and hoping for a safe migration.

"I counted the first 23 total Whoopers on Halloween (22 adult + 1 chick). A low pressure system is reaching Texas tomorrow (11/1/97) and should bring more cranes. In about a week, and one more subsequent front, should be about 100 birds here." Sure enough, on Tom's count today 57 cranes had already arrived. The first arrived this year on October 21, one week later than in past years. The rest are still scattered throughout the mid-western United States and Saskatchewan in Canada.

Baby Whoopers Add to the Population
Tom is hoping a total of up to 180 Cranes will come to Aransas this year. That's up from 160 Cranes that spent the winter at Aransas last year. 32 new, baby Whoopers were hatched and survived through mid-summer this year in their Canadian breeding grounds. If 32 new Cranes were born into the population of 160 Whoopers, why won't all 192 show up at Aransas and the surrounding areas this fall?

Each year a certain number of Whooping Cranes do not survive the entire migration. Some years, as many as a dozen adult cranes that leave Aransas in the spring fail to survive to return in the fall. Migration is hard work and some of the Cranes simply will not be able to withstand the harsh conditions. For example, Tom worries that the severe blizzard which hit Nebraska and Kansas last week may have harmed some of the younger Whoopers.

Tom generally waits until the end of December, when all of the Whooping Cranes have arrived in the Aransas area, to complete his head count of who has arrived and who hasn't. Can you predict how many Whoopers you think will make it? Watch for Tom's weekly updates of the number of Whoopers moving into the Aransas area. Meanwhile, here's Tom's personal account of his own recent migration.

Teaching Cranes to Migrate
"I just got back from the time of my life, traveling as a member of the ground crew along with Kent Clegg and his Ultralight aircraft," reports Mr. Stehn. "Kent and the Ultralight escorted 4 Whooping Cranes and 8 Sandhill Cranes all the way from Grace, Idaho to Bosque de la Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico! This was just like in the movie 'Fly Away Home'. The only difference was that instead of flying with Canada Geese, Ultralight pilot Kent Clegg was flying with Cranes!"

"I traveled with the Cranes for the entire 9 day Ultralight mission as part of a six-man ground crew. I watched Kent play the part of the Crane chick's father. The young chicks learned his voice and followed him wherever he went. Kent would normally fly with the birds for about 2 hours early in the morning, and then let the birds rest for half a day. Often, a shorter, one-hour flight was made just before sunset."

"My job was to care for the birds and set up portable pens wherever they landed. Enclosures were needed to keep predators away from the tame Cranes. We fed them a little corn during their daytime rest, but not too much or they wouldn't want to fly. During migration, Cranes don't normally eat very much and live off stored fat reserves. It was absolutely amazing to watch the Cranes run out of their pens and take flight at the same time Kent, in the Ultralight, taxied down the run way, preparing for take off."

"All four Whoopers in the Ultralight mission made the trip all the way to the new destination at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Sadly, one of the Sandhill Cranes died en route after colliding with the Ultralight plane. One of the Whooping Cranes was also badly injured when attacked and knocked from the air by a Golden Eagle. Even though a second airplane flew behind Kent to chase off eagles, this one bird slipped through our air defenses. I, and the rest of the ground crew, rushed out to the injured Crane, cut a sock in half for a bandage to stop the bleeding, and rushed it to a nearby veterinarian. Stitches were needed to close two long punctures in the crane's thigh made by the eagles talons. The injured Whooping Crane got to ride the rest of the way to Bosque in the back of a trailer and seems to have recovered nicely."

These Whoopers are not of the wild flock Tom has so carefully watched over for the past 15 years. They were hatched and reared at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, located in Laurel, Maryland. When they were only 20 days old, the chicks were flown all the way from Maryland to a large cattle ranch in Grace, Idaho. The ranch is owned by Kent Clegg who has had a longtime love of Whooping and Sandhill Cranes.

Kent has been interested in learning new ways to help build the population of Whooping Cranes in North America. His hope and prediction:

If the Whooping Cranes could be taught to migrate to other areas, perhaps new populations of Cranes could begin to establish themselves in these areas.

So, he wanted to see if Whoopers could indeed be taught to migrate to areas besides Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, their traditional winteringing grounds. Similar to building the population of Trumpeter Swans, establishing new populations of Whoopers could be a way to increase the their overall population.

P.S. From Tom Stehn
Have you been following Father Goose's attempt this fall to migrate sandhills behind an ultralight?

The Next Journey South Update Will be Posted on November 6, 1997.