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Whooping Cranes arriving in Texas
With whooping cranes now making their way back to Texas for the winter, biologists are hoping this year will see a record number of the endangered birds in the state.
Their population reached a low 21 birds in the wild in the 1940s and again in 1954. The only remaining wild population now nests in northwestern Canada and spends the winter foraging in the wetlands and uplands of the central Texas coast. Last year 283 birds arrived in Texas. But with a reported 37 chicks fledged in Canada this past summer, biologists think that the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, which once numbered only 17 birds, might hit the 300-bird milestone in Texas for the first time this year.
Though the whooping crane has made a remarkable comeback, primarily due to protection from unregulated shooting and habitat conservation, the species still faces daunting obstacles, especially in the 2,400-mile migration path traversed each spring and fall. Two-thirds to three-fourths of the annual mortality in the population occurs during the approximately nine weeks the cranes may spend in migration each year.
Radio-marked birds detected in Texas earlier this fall are two of 22 birds being tracked in a study being conducted by Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory designed to help better understand habitat use and sources of mortality during migration.
Even on the wintering grounds, where private and public land owners in the stretch of coast between Port Aransas and Seadrift have collaborated to help protect whooping crane habitat, additional challenges exist, according to Lee Ann Linam, a wildlife diversity biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
“Despite the existence of protected areas such as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and private landowners who are committed to habitat conservation,” she said, “broad threats such as shifts in climate and in freshwater inflow, invasion of black mangrove, declines in food items such as blue crab, development pressures, and the possibility of a pollution event still provide challenges for conservation of whooping cranes and other coastal species. The comeback of the whooping crane will continue to be as vulnerable as the health of our coastal ecosystems.”
Texas citizens away from the coast can also contribute to conservation efforts for the whooping crane. The cranes usually pass through a migration corridor in Texas that extends from the Texas panhandle eastward to Dallas-Fort Worth and southward to the wintering grounds on the central Texas coast. Their flight path would take them over major cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria. The majority of the cranes pass through Texas from late October through the end of November. Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whoopers and prevent disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations.
Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They are solid white 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. They nearly always migrate in small groups of fewer than 4-5 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane.
Anyone sighting a whooping crane can help by reporting it to TPWD at 1-800-792-1112 x4644 or 1-512-847-9480. Sightings can also be reported via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs.
Additional identification aids can be found at http://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/?o=whooper and http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/CurrentBirdIssues/SandhillCranes/SandhillCraneHunters.htm. Information about opportunities to view wintering whooping cranes can be obtained from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/) or the Rockport Chamber of Commerce (http://www.rockport-fulton.org/).
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