Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 15, 2016Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, flying nearly six surveys. Unfortunately, we were plagued with poor flying conditions throughout the survey period. Of the nine days we had pilots and planes available, only five days (Dec. 9, 10, 11, 13, 14) offered safe enough conditions to fly. Of those five days, only two days (Dec. 9 and 13) had good flying weather most of the day, allowing for complete surveys. Fog, rain, low ceilings and high winds all contributed to poor flying conditions. Fortunately, we had two pilots and planes from our Migratory Birds program and four observers available, allowing us to fly more than one survey a day.
Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our Migratory Birds program, served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Cessna 206. This year Phil Thorpe also served as a pilot, flying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wheeled Kodiak. Observers were Wade Harrell, Jena Moon (Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist), Doug Head (Refuges Inventory and Monitoring biologist) and Stephen LeJeune (Chenier Plains Refuge Complex Fire Program). Doug Head (Refuge Inventory and Management biologist) served as survey coordinator.
Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:
We observed whooping cranes using four units of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton and Lamar) and 3 Texas coastal counties (Aransas, Calhoun and Matagorda).
There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to view whooping cranes in publically accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough. We consistently observed a family group of whooping crane in the Mustang Lake salt marsh in front of the observation tower, so you have an excellent opportunity to view whooping crane behavior with a juvenile in tow in their natural habitat.
I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Joe Saenz, Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort; Doug Head, Refuge Inventory & Monitoring biologist as survey coordinator; Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and dispatch; and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.
We will be flying some additional surveys in February in order to complete our survey of secondary areas and train new observers.
Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:
No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter; however, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack Unit, Tatton Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.
Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:
November precipitation: 2.57” @ Aransas HQ
December precipitation (as of 12/15): 2.62” @ Aransas HQ
Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 13 parts per thousand
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The Matagorda Island Unit of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is part of long chain of barrier islands that extend down the Texas coastline. This rugged landscape is host or home to many amazing wildlife species, including whooping cranes, Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, reddish egrets, alligators and coyotes.