The following report is forwarded with permission from Tom Stehn, USFWS biologist and US Whooping Crane Coordinator.
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An aerial census on 06 December, 2005 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas estimated the number of whooping cranes present at Aransas as 187 adults + 29 young = 216 total. One additional whooping crane is in extreme South Texas in Hidalgo County near Hargill. This is believed to be the 2004 juvenile that had separated from its parents last fall and had spent the 2004-05 winter with sandhills near Bay City, Texas north of Aransas. It is the 217th documented in the flock this fall. Numbers counted have tied last winter's record peak population of 217.
Approximately 230 whooping cranes are hoped to arrive at Aransas this winter. Thus, an estimated 94% of the flock has completed the migration. Peak flock counts are often obtained in December. However, I'm getting worried since there have been no recent reports of whooping cranes in migration and severe weather in the Flyway should have pushed the cranes south. However, 3 whooping cranes were reported today with sandhills near Palacios, Texas located 23 miles north of Matagorda Island. If this report can be confirmed, the flock size would be at a record 220!
Recap of cranes observed on the flight: (213)
adults + young change from previous
Refuge 60 + 8 + 5
Lamar 3 + 0 - 1
San Jose 42 + 5 - 3
Matagorda 66 + 11* + 2
Welder Flats 14 + 4** - 4
Total 185 + 28 = 213 - 1
* a record number.
** One family group was overlooked.
Remarks: Fair viewing conditions were present throughout the day with partly cloudy, high overcast skies and light east winds. Skies were dark and conditions difficult at the beginning and end of the flight. All of the crane winter area except for Burgentine Lake and the upper end of Copano Creek was flown in an 8.0-hour census.
An estimated 2 + 0 = 2 whooping cranes have arrived from migration since the previous flight on November 30. A Pacific cold front provided excellent migration conditions December 05.
Cranes that were known to be overlooked on today's flight were one family group at Welder Flats (either Dewberry Island or South Shoalwater), and possibly the N. Allyn's Bight pair on San Jose.
Whooping cranes on today's flight were located in salt marsh habitat (n=195), in the shallow edge of the GIWW (3), prescribed burns (5), and ponds believed to be somewhat fresher than nearby salt marsh (10). Tides levels were relatively low, with many exposed mudflats on San Jose.
There was lots of movement observed on today's flight. Most were cranes chasing other cranes, with subadults retreating outside territory boundaries. On the refuge, yesterday's prescribed burn on Unit C6 caused some of the refuge cranes to be located in high marsh next to the burn with movements back and forth between the marsh and the edge of burn. Most movements required subjective judgements as to which cranes had already been counted with some crane sightings considered as duplications. The estimate of 216 currently at Aransas is thus a conservative figure which could increase by a few birds if visibility is ideal and the birds move less.
The most surprising find on the flight was the 'twin' family in Sundown Bay present with only 1 chick. A lone juvenile was found about 3 miles to the south just south of Sundown Cut and must have been one of the twins. I have no explanation for why one of the twin juveniles is now on its own. It acted quite nervous as the airplane approached. Later in the day, two cranes believed to be a territorial pair were standing right where the juvenile had been in the morning, and thus the juvenile presumably got displaced to an unknown location. This young bird certainly may be okay, but it will have a tougher winter compared with if it had stayed with its parents.
One subadult whooping cranes were visible from the refuge observation tower, again indicating that the territorial pair at Mustang Lake has not yet returned to Aransas. Other territories for which pairs have not yet returned are 'W' and N. Spalding Point on San Jose, North Pump Canal on the refuge, and the Middle Matagorda Island territory. The family group that several week's ago on Panther Point was observed as 3+1 was back to a typical 2+1 grouping on today's flight. A band was read on one adult in this family as g-nil, indicating it is the traditional territorial pair on Panther Point that has brought a chick to Aransas. Previously I had mistakenly thought this family was unbanded since the banded adult was first seen in a group of 2 adults. No cranes were found on the extreme north end of Matagorda Island, but a pair and a duo were found at the south end of Pringle Lake that last week had been on the extreme north end.
Whooping Crane Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 100
Austwell, TX 77950
(361) 286-3559 Ext. 221
fax (361) 286-3722
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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/
Patty Waits Beasley
Corpus Christi, TX