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Update from the Whooping Cranes' Winter Headquarters
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Austwell, Texas
February 29, 2000

Dear Students,

This year has been a struggle for the whooping cranes, with difficult habitat conditions both summer and winter. However, the flock has managed to INCREASE their numbers by TWO to reach 185, a record number. Here is a brief chronology of their year:

SUMMER 1999, WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK: When the whooping cranes reached the nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada, below-average snows during the winter had left the marsh with low water levels. Much-needed rainfall came the first week in June, but unfortunately right when the eggs were hatching. Some of the very small chicks did not survive in the wet, cold weather. Forty-eight nesting pairs did produce 48 chicks, including 10 pairs with twin young. However, none of the sets of twin young survived, and only 20 chicks were still alive in mid-August as they began flying lessons at about 10 weeks of age. Seventeen of these survived the hazards of the long, 2,500-mile migration and made it to Aransas by the end of the year. This compares with 18 chicks that reached Aransas last year.

FALL MIGRATION, 1999, CANADA TO TEXAS: The fall migration started early, with two cranes sighted in Saskatchewan on August 31. Most of the whoopers crossed the U.S. starting in mid October. The most notable aspect of the migration was that 44 different whooping cranes stopped at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas at different times throughout the fall. Eighteen whoopers were present the day the refuge duck hunting season was scheduled to open, but the refuge manager postponed the hunt until the birds had safely departed to continue their migration. This spot has become a major stopover for small groups of whoopers in the fall. Weather during the fall migration was unseasonably mild, but the migration seemed to progress at about or slightly slower than the normal pace. The first date recorded for confirmed observations of migrating whooping cranes was September 16 in the U.S. As of mid-October, the only confirmed whooping crane sightings were from Saskatchewan and North Dakota. Starting the week of October 20, sightings became numerous cross the U.S. Whoopers were definitely on the move, including 20 birds at Quivira NWR, Kansas on October 23, and 14 whoopers at Salt Plains NWR, Oklahoma on October 26. After a major front reached the Texas coast on November 2, high pressure throughout the central US delayed the whooping crane migration. Sightings were reported from Alberta (1), Saskatchewan (32), North Dakota (14), Nebraska (5), Kansas (19), Oklahoma (8), and Texas (4) (Jobman, 2000 Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Report). The latest recorded observation was December 29 in Barton County, Kansas, unusual for a whooper to still be that far north.

FALL ARRIVALS AT ARANSAS, 1999: The average arrival date for the first whooping cranes at Aransas is October 16. In 1999, the first whoopers rode in behind a strong cold front that reached the Texas coast the afternoon of October 17. They were first observed October 20 on a census flight with 8 adults and 1 juvenile present. Excellent migration conditions were present at Aransas with northwest winds October 30 through November 3. An estimated 93 cranes arrived at Aransas between the end of October and middle of November. Cranes totalled 119 on November 17 and 182 on December 4. About 84% (156 whoopers) of the arrivals occurred between October 27 and December 4 (Jobman 2000).

1999-2000 WINTER, ARANSAS: Things have been very chaotic for both myself and the whooping cranes at Aransas this winter. The pilot I had been flying with every week to count the birds had to have emergency heart bypass surgery. Fortunately, he is well on his way to a full recovery. I frantically arranged for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilots from Louisiana and New Mexico to help me with the census flights until I could find another pilot. Fortunately, by the first week in January, a pilot from Victoria, Texas had met all the aircraft inspections and extra check rides required for these low level flights conducted 200 feet above the ground, so I was back in the crane counting business every week. By this time, the whooping cranes had eaten many of the blue crabs in the marsh. This favorite food of the whooping cranes is very high in protein, but it had become scarce. Also, the waters were very salty due to a drought, so the birds were flying inland several times a day to find fresh water to drink. The refuge staff conducted prescribed burns of the oak brushlands to provide additional food for the cranes. The whoopers love the roasted acorns that they can find on the ground after the tall prairie grass is burned off. Cranes left their traditional marsh territories and formed large flocks on the burns. One day I counted 38 cranes all together on one burn. It is incredibly unusual for that many whooping cranes to get together, since mated pairs usually remain in their salt marsh territories and keep all other whooping cranes out of that area. My census flights indicated that at least 185 cranes were present in the flock. This is a record number, two more than last winter. This includes one whooping crane that never made it to Aransas. This crane is wintering in West Texas with sandhill cranes. Because of all the crane movements to burns and freshwater, it has been very hard to get an accurate count. There could be as many as 191 cranes present. I'll keep trying every week to figure this out. And I'll continue to worry about the shortage of blue crabs for the whooping cranes to eat.

SPRING MIGRATION, 2000: The first whooping cranes normally start the migration about mid-March, but a few could leave a little before that. Most of them will leave by mid-April. I'll be flying in a small airplane once a week all spring to record the number of whooping cranes that start the migration each week, and I'll let you know how the count is going. Despite warm spring weather here, the whoopers "know" it is too early to start their journey since it is still frozen up north.


Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator

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