February 6, 2020


Wintering Whooping Crane Update, February 6, 2020
Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

We completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, and were able to fly three primary surveys and two secondary surveys. Areas surveyed stretch along the Texas coast from Matagorda to Port Aransas.  Phil Thorpe, pilot with the USFWS Migratory Birds program, flew the survey crew in a wheeled Kodiak again this year. In addition to an overall estimate of the winter population size, the survey provides us an estimate of how many juveniles were “recruited” into the population last summer. Better juvenile recruitment this past year in Canada (37) compared to 2018 (24) should result in a larger population this year.  For more information on our wintering abundance survey, click here.  

Whooping Crane Survey Team 2020

Our secondary survey (on the edges of the core wintering range) is crucial in determining future expansion areas for a growing population. We are getting reports of whooping cranes in quite a variety of places outside our primary survey area this year, including a pair near Matagorda, Texas, three adults in Port Aransas, and marked birds in Colorado County.  A juvenile whooping crane marked last summer in Wood Buffalo National Park stopped migrating in Kansas, and is currently with a flock of sandhill cranes at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas NWR for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 whooping cranes with cellular telemetry devices. With these devices providing locations every 15 minutes, we are able to understand daily movements (night and day) and habitat use at a level that was not available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.

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 this winter from the Heron Flats viewing deck at a much closer distance than the pair at the observation tower, providing visitors a more intimate viewing experience.  You can find a map of the refuge trails here.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:

Due to wet weather, we are just getting started on prescribed burning.  Our goal is to burn approximately 13,000 acres this year, the majority of which is whooping crane habitat.  So far we have completed prescribed burns totaling 1,600 acres on the Blackjack Peninsula and plan to burn at least 900 acres more this week.  

Fire crews responded to a wildfire on Matagorda Island in early December.  Although this fire was unplanned, it will provide immediate and long-term benefits to whooping cranes and other wildlife. Part of the area that burned was scheduled to be burned this winter to improve habitat for whooping cranes and other wildlife. Whooping and sandhill cranes will both feed in "blackened" or freshly burned habitat and burning woody/brush species around freshwater ponds removes cover for predators. Fire also maintains coastal prairie habitat that benefits Aplomado Falcons and other prairie-dependent species.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:

January-February-current precipitation: 4.85” @ Aransas HQ
Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 19 ppt