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Protected Whoopers Arriving in Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — Wildlife authorities expect record numbers of endangered whooping cranes to arrive in Texas this fall, provided they make it through the hazards encountered along the way. Canadian biologists report that as many as 212 whoopers (including a record 41 young) may have left their nesting grounds beginning in September. Most (186 including 28 young) had already arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) near Rockport, by Nov.16, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counts.
This leaves 26 still unaccounted for. A few were known to still be in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma a week ago. Most "stragglers" may not arrive until mid-December, and occasionally young get separated from their parents and remain with sandhill cranes away from ANWR throughout the winter. Wildlife authorities are again requesting that anyone who sights a whooping crane this fall call (800) 792-1112 extension 4505, so they can monitor the animal’s progress and determine potential hazards. Migration hazards include utility and fence lines, early severe storms, eagle predation, and illegal shooting.
The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor that extends from the Texas panhandle eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth and southward to the wintering grounds on the central Texas coast. Sandhill crane hunting season is scheduled to open in north central Texas Nov. 27 and later along the coast on Dec. 18.
And hunters are cautioned to be aware of the possible presence of whooping cranes with the smaller gray sandhill cranes and avoid those areas. Whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws. Standing at more than four feet, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America. They are solid white except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs extended. During migration they often stop to roost in tanks and reservoirs or feed in agricultural fields, but seldom remain more than one night. They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than six birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller gray sandhill crane. For whooper-sandhill crane identification materials, go to the Web.
This won’t be the first year authorities expected winter numbers to surpass the 200-bird mark. Scientists began anticipating exceeding this milestone after the winter of 1999-2000 when 188 birds wintered at ANWR. But reproduction on the nesting grounds was low during following summers until 2003. A record number of nests during 2003, (28 chicks surviving to late summer) was also expected to help break the mark. However, only 194 whoopers (including 25 chicks) showed up at the peak in late December of 2003. As many as a quarter of young known to leave Canada never make it to Texas.
If most make the 2,400-mile migration to Texas, not only will the flock set a new population record since counts began in 1938, it will also begin a new chapter in the comeback story of an endangered species that once numbered only 21 birds. Texas’ winter flock of whooping cranes (the flock summers and nests in northwestern Canada in Wood Buffalo National Park), represents the last remaining natural flock of whooping cranes in the wild. When the ANWR was created on the Texas coast in 1937 to conserve migratory waterfowl, it also preserved habitat for the last migratory flock of whooping cranes left on earth.
Habitat protection and protection from hunting facilitated a slow but steady recovery for the whooping crane. With a slow growth rate and low reproduction (whooping crane pairs usually raise only one chick), the Aransas flock did not reach 50 birds until 1968. It took an additional 28 years to pass the 100-bird mark.
Texas’ whooping cranes are considered a national treasure, and people outside Texas and Canada are likely to celebrate when the species reaches 200 birds as well, according to Lee Ann Linam, biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"People all over the world value whooping cranes, and that brings benefit to communities and wildlife habitats in Texas. In addition, conservation of whooping cranes in Texas has helped to bring the species back in other parts of the country, because eggs collected from our flock have been used in captive breeding and reintroductions in Wisconsin and Florida," she said.
Remember, whooping cranes are protected by federal and state endangered species laws and Texans can help safeguard this national treasure by helping to prevent harm or harassment to whooping cranes. Anyone sighting a whooping crane is asked to report it to TPWD at (800) 792-1112, Ext. 4505. Sightings can also be reported via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Some whooping cranes are marked with colored leg bands and information about those bands, including on which leg they were found, would also be useful.
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