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 14 December, 2005 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas estimated the number of whooping cranes present at Aransas as 186 adults + 28 young = 214 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. The number of cranes that have arrived (217) equals last winter's peak population, but one adult and one juvenile have died this winter, leaving 215 in the flock.
Approximately 230 whooping cranes were expected to arrive at Aransas this winter. Presumably all the cranes have completed the migration, but we have not had good enough visibility on our two flights conducted so far in December to get a complete count of cranes present. There have been no recent reports of whooping cranes in migration, and 3 whooping cranes could not be confirmed as reported December 6 near Palacios, Texas located 23 miles north of Matagorda Island. An extremely strong low pressure system that reached the Texas Coast December 8th pushed wind chills into the 20's and could have enabled any lingering whooping cranes to complete the migration. However, this front did not move out the one flamingo that has been here all fall, sighted most recently 12-13-05 on the south end of the refuge near Dunham Bay along the GIWW.
Recap of cranes observed on the flight: (206)
adults + young
Refuge 58 + 9
Lamar 4 + 0
San Jose 37 + 4
Matagorda 63 + 11
Welder Flats 16 + 4
Total 178 + 28 = 206
Remarks: Difficult viewing conditions were present throughout the day with dark clouds present, making it impossible to find every crane. All of the crane winter area except for Burgentine Lake, the upper end of Copano Creek and the north end of Matagorda Island was flown in a 6.8-hour census. Fog delayed the start of the census until 0930 hrs. With limited time available to cover all areas completely, a modified search was made of Matagorda Island north of Panther Point, basically checking the areas where cranes had been the previous week. This technique enabled us to find all the known territorial pairs in the modified search area. A cold front with strong winds crossed the coast at 3:30 PM, making for about 30 minutes of moderately turbulent flight conditions.
Two whooping cranes turned up missing on today's flight and are believed dead. Adult male BwB-YbY (1987) from the N. Pipeline Flats family was missing, with just his mate (W-nil) and juvenile sighted together on the territory. Ground observations the following day confirmed the loss of the male, but a limited search failed to find any sign of the carcass. On Dewberry Island, the pair was found but their juvenile was not present. Last week, this juvenile was also not located, with possibly the pair moving down into the main crane range last week at Welder Flats. On today's flight, the pair was back on Dewberry Island. The loss of cranes at Aransas and the apparent failure of quite a few cranes to arrive are very disappointing.
The family with twin chicks was back together sighted as 2+2. Last week, one of the juveniles had separated off by about a distance of 4 miles for three days before returning to his parents and sibling.
Cranes that were known to be overlooked on today's flight were N. Allyn's Bight, Cottonwood, N. Cottonwood, and Behind Middle Pond. Two 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 pairs that have failed to arrive this fall include Mustang Lake, N. Pump Canal, Middle Matagorda Island, and possibly the duo that last winter consistently used an area on N. Spalding Point.
Interesting observations of habitat use on today's flight included no cranes on prescribed burns or at freshwater sources, with 7 cranes in open bay habitat. These 7 included the N. Lamar pair far from shore in the shallow water's of St. Charles Bay, a family group foraging presumably for clams in the GIWW at Welder Flats, and a pair in Cedar Lake on Matagorda also presumably eating clams. All other cranes were in salt marsh habitat believed foraging primarily on wolfberries with some use of crabs. Tides levels were somewhat higher than last week, measured at 2.1 mlt on 12-15. Most mudflats on San Jose were submerged. Marsh salinities measured December 15th ranged between 13 and 20 ppt, with bay waters at 20 ppt measured at the refuge boat canal.
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