The following report is forwarded with permission from Tom Stehn, USFWS biologist and US Whooping Crane Coordinator.
Where applicable, CWS stands for Canadian Wildlife Service; USFWS is US Fish and Wildlife Service. Crane monitoring involves cooperative efforts and support by both countries, plus many volunteers and non-profit organizations along the way.
Anyone wanting to contact Tom about the report or the whooping crane projects can reach him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Other information, including archived copies of these reports, can be found at the Texas Whooping Crane web site at http://www.ccbirding.com/
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An aerial census on December 31, 2003 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas estimated the number of whooping cranes present at 169 adults + 25 young = 194 total.
Recap of cranes observed: (194)
adults + young change from 12/17/03
Refuge 56 + 9 + 7
Lamar 5 + 1 0
San Jose 41 + 7 + 2
Matagorda 50 + 6 - 10
Welder 17 + 2 + 1
Total 169 + 25 = 194** 0
* The 48 cranes on San Jose is a record total for that area, surpassing the previous high of 47 recorded 11-26-03.
** The 194 cranes is presumably the highest total at Aransas in the last 100 years. It surpasses the previous high of 188 in the fall of 1999.
Remarks: Conditions were good, with mostly sunny skies for over half the day. Dark clouds were present during the census over portions of San Jose and Welder Flats, making it more difficult to find cranes. Winds were light.
The 194 cranes estimated present on today's flight matches exactly the 194 cranes located on the previous flight conducted December 17th. This adds reliability to the population estimate. The flock consists of 135 adults, 34 subadults, and 25 chicks.
Three white-plumaged whooping cranes were reported 1 mile west of West Columbia in Brazoria County, Texas on December 19th. This is about 100 miles northeast of Aransas. A landowner and his wife using binoculars watched 3 whooping cranes for about an hour foraging in a pasture, clearly seeing the black wing tips when the birds flew off to the south about 1 PM. The calls from the whoopers alerted the couple to the presence of cranes different from the sandhills which they see all the time. If these 3 whooping cranes make it safely to Aransas, it gives me hope that I may find 197 whooping cranes on a future census flight. The 3 whoopers could have been present on today's flight, and possibly my count came up a little short.
A prescribed burn conducted December 18th on the north half of the refuge changed the distribution of wintering cranes. Compared with the previous census flight two weeks ago, eight more cranes were present on the north half of the refuge, with 6 fewer cranes on the south half of Matagorda Island, the area directly across Ayres Bay from the north half of the refuge. On today's flight, 14 whoopers were documented on the refuge burn. The number of cranes on the burn changed during the course of the census on the north half of the refuge. After the cranes left the burn, with most moving to Mustang Slough, a re-count was done and the total for that area reduced by one due to a possible duplication. This adds a degree of uncertainty by one crane to today's estimate.
Movements besides those to and from the burn created some chaos during the census flight. The E. Spalding Cove family group was first sighted in flight from a freshwater source returning to its territory. One Power Lake adult was at first not with its mate and chick, but was later seen in flight returning to its family. Two adults in flight chased a subadult at Shell Reef Bayou.
Habitat: Tides were up from the previous flight conducted 2 weeks ago, measured at 2.4 mlt on December 29. Salinities were measured at 18 ppt in the bays and as high as 33 in cut-off marsh ponds. There has not been much rainfall in the past month. However, only 3 cranes were seen returning from a freshwater source during today's flight. Eighteen cranes were observed in upland habitat, including the St. Charles Bay family on their territory at a game feeder on the Johnson Ranch. Fourteen cranes were on a refuge prescribed burn. No cranes were observed on recent burns on San Jose Island, or older burns on Matagorda and Welder Flats. Nine cranes were observed in open bay habitat. Most cranes were in open water flats and ponds, with crabs still believed to be their primary food source. A refuge crab count done December 29 found crab numbers much reduced from 3 weeks ago, although low numbers of crabs were still available for the cranes. The wolfberry crop is about over. The area with the greatest number of abandoned crab traps is Matagorda Island between Power and Pringle Lake. This area should be focused on during the scheduled crab trap pickup in February. Duck season continues, with 5 airboats seen on San Jose and 1 on Matagorda. Cedar Bayou has remained open since re-opening late in the summer.
Notes: For the second consecutive flight, the Allyn's Bight pair was not on their territory, but may have been encountered elsewhere on the census. The Cedar Bayou pair was in open bay habitat near the south end of Matagorda. The Behind Middle Pond family grouping continued as 1 adult with 1 chick. A single white-plumaged crane was about ½ mile away from the adult and chick. The movement of cranes to the burn on the north half of the refuge made it impossible to identify territorial pairs. The Mustang Lake and Boat Ramp pairs were not on their territories, with 3 subadults in the Mustang Lake marshes. The Ayres Island pair was not identified, with 1 white-plumaged crane believed to be a subadult on the Ayres Island. The Dewberry Island family was not on its territory, but were in upland habitat southwest of Fulghum's. The Grass Island family was not on its territory. The metal band above the foot of one of the Twin Lake adults was sighted for the first time this winter. One subadult crane continued to utilize marshlands near the mouth of Copano Creek, moving a little closer to Holiday beach compared to its location of 2 weeks ago. Three cranes were observed sitting down in vegetated marsh on Matagorda Island, including both members of the Middle Matagorda pair. It is unusual to see cranes sitting, and very unusual to see both members of a pair sitting at the same time. It must be New Year's Eve with the cranes on holiday.
- Tom Stehn
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Patty Waits Beasley
Corpus Christi, TX