The endangered whooping cranes have started to arrive at their wintering grounds in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, according to a press release from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD.)
The release reminds Texans to be on the lookout for the endangered birds as they move through the state.
A few whooping cranes have made their home at the Port Aransas Nature Preserve at Charlie’s Pasture for the past four winters.
Rae Mooney, nature preserve manager, said that so far the cranes have not been seen at the preserve.
Whooping cranes are the tallest, rarest birds in North America.
Janess Vartanian, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) acting whooping crane coordinator, said that a pair of whooping cranes were the first to arrive this season on Friday, Oct. 21, on Matagorda Island.
“The arrival of this pair is a week earlier than last year. However most of the flock is expected to arrive in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Austwell in December,” Vartanian said.
Experts think the whooping crane flock that winters at the NWR may be expanding its territory. Once the cranes arrive in their wintering grounds, many stay in the same general area.
The release said that younger birds that have not paired yet may wander off their usual flight path, using areas quite distant from the NWR area.
Birders therefore should be on the lookout to see if the whooping cranes return to winter in Port Aransas.
Because the whooping cranes have been wintering here, new rules are in place for trail use at the preserve from Oct. 30 through April 30. A story about these rules is available in the online Oct. 13 edition of the South Jetty at no charge.
Whooping cranes make a 2,500-mile journey from their Canadian breeding grounds in northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park to the coastal marshes of Texas each year. The migration south to Texas can take up to 50 days.
Vartanian said that she has received reports that migration has ramped up, and the majority of the flock should arrive by December.
The release said that at last count there was a population of around 543 individuals in the flock that winters at the refuge. In 1941, just 15 birds existed in the flock. Through conservation efforts the whooping cranes are slowly returning from the brink of extinction.
Vartanian said the birds stop over for a time to feed up in Saskatchewan before they continue their migration south. There are several refuges along the path where they stop briefly.
During their migration, whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields where they can roost and feed.
“The birds often pass large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin,” she said. “Though whooping cranes rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, it is important that they not be disturbed or harassed at these stopovers.”
As a federally protected species, it is illegal to disturb or harass these birds.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted Texas will experience a La Niña weather pattern for the third consecutive winter, prompting a warmer and drier winter across the Southwest and Gulf Coast.
“An extended drought may prompt whooping cranes to seek out and use freshwater sources on the Aransas NWR and surrounding areas as winter progresses,” said Vartanian. “The USFWS is encouraging landowners to consider providing fresh water on their properties as well to aid the birds during their migration and wintering period.”
The timing of the whooping crane migration means that they are arriving during the opening of sandhill crane and waterfowl hunting seasons.
TPWD urges hunters to be extra vigilant.
“Whooping cranes are sometimes found in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are gray and slightly smaller,” the release said. “With their all-white body plumage and black wingtips, whooping cranes may also resemble snow geese, which are much smaller and have faster wing beats.”
A video from TPWD details how to tell the differences between whooping cranes, sandhill cranes and snow geese. You can view the video at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=VvkAYGZnJ4Q.
The release also points out other non-game species that are similar in appearance to the whooping crane such as wood storks, American white pelicans, great egrets and other birds.
More information can be found on identifying characteristics between both hunted and protected migratory bird species at the TPWD website.
The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to Texas Whooper Watch, a citizen-science at based reporting system, at tpwd.texas. gov/huntwild/wild/wildlife_ diversity/ texas_ nature_ trackers/ whooper-watch/report.phtml/ to track whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas. More information about Whooper Watch, including instructions for reporting sightings, can be found online.
The iNaturalist mobile app also can be downloaded and used to report whooping crane sightings.
These observations help biologists identify new migration and wintering locations and their associated habitats.
Contact Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org