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Greetings all!

The following report is forwarded with permission from Tom Stehn, USFWS biologist and US Whooping Crane Coordinator.

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An aerial census was conducted January 8-9, 2008 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas.  The total number of whooping cranes located was 236.  Sea fog rolling in from the Gulf prevented us from completing the census.  The estimated size of the flock remains at a record 266.  The flock consists of an estimated 144 adults, 83 subadults, and 39 juveniles.

 

Recap of cranes found at Aransas (236) on the January 8-9, 2008 flight:

 

 

Adults + young

Refuge

  60 + 10

Lamar

   6 +   1

San Jose

  41 +  5*

Matagorda

  72 + 12**

Welder Flats

  22 +   7

Total

202 + 34 = 236

* Coverage incomplete due to sea fog in the late afternoon that terminated the flight.            

** Record number

 

I started doing census flights in 1982, so this initial flight in 2008 marks my 27th different calendar year trying to maintain my equilibrium as we do aerial maneuvers looking for cranes.

The whooping crane survey was conducted in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Logistic Solutions of San Antonio, Texas with USFWS observers Tom Stehn and Darrin Welchert.  The flight was conducted over two afternoons due to other contract commitments of the aircraft.  This contract involves carrying from Houston to extreme south Texas medical radioactive materials used in cancer screenings with a very short half life that must be transported daily.  The cranes flights certainly don’t mind being fitted in around that important mission.  Unfortunately, the weather just did not cooperate this time.  With difficult “soupy” viewing conditions on January 8th, we found all the cranes expected plus a few more, but were only able to cover about 1/3rd of the census area.  We resumed the census the following day with clear skies, but the clouds moved in soon after, and then sea fog that rolled in off the Gulf in the late afternoon terminated the flight.

 

I estimate that the whooping crane migration is complete.  The whooping crane that was staying in frozen conditions in North Dakota apparently resumed migration around December 22 and headed south with a strong low pressure system.  It is presumably at Aransas along with the 2 whooping cranes reported on December 19th about 50 miles up the coast from Aransas.  Two promising reports right before Christmas each of 3 cranes west and southwest of Houston could not be confirmed.  One juvenile whooping crane sighted in west Texas November 27-28 has not been sighted subsequently and is wintering in an unknown location.  If it doesn’t re-surface this winter, it will probably next be seen on the Platte River in March since it is accompanying sandhill cranes.  There have been no reports recently of any whooping cranes in agricultural lands just north of the wintering area.  With one extra single subadult found at Welder Flats on January 8th, that bird is probably the crane that was with sandhills near Indianola in the fall.

 

On today’s flight, a notable 19 whooping cranes were found using a prescribed burn conducted on December 28th on Matagorda Island.  No cranes were found at fresh water sources, which is not surprising with salinities recently measured at a moderate 15 ppt.  Only 2 cranes were found in open bay habitat.  Foods have been plentiful in the marsh and the cranes have not had to seek out alternative foods.  A crab count done on January 9th by refuge volunteer Katherine Cullen found 13 crabs in an hour of hiking the marsh along with some wolfberry fruits, so the cranes are still getting these two important food items and not having to revert to clams which are less nutritious.  On today’s flight, tides were mid-range (measured at 2.55 mlt), but large mudflats remained exposed on San Jose Island. 

 

A family group that has been seen as 1+1 some weeks and 2+1 some weeks was back as a two-adult family group.  This is an indication that re-pairing may be taking place.

 

Captain Tommy Moore on the tour boat named the Black Skimmer has made interesting observations about a particular crane he calls the “Scarbaby”.  The crane is recognizable by missing feathers on the back of its head.  This crane hatched in 2004 sustained a very serious head injury at Aransas possibly from a snake bite or was hit by a raptor in April, 2005.  This crane missed two northward migrations, but did make its first northward migration in the spring, 2007.  Now, as a 3 ˝ year-old, this male crane apparently has a mate and has established a territory on the refuge’s Sundown Island.  Captain Moore noted this new duo also trying to spend time right next to Scarbaby’s parents, the Lobstick cranes that this year have two chicks.

 

The next census flight will take place sometime in February.

 

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Aransas NWR
P.O. Box 100
Austwell, TX 77950
(361) 286-3559 Ext. 221
fax (361) 286-3722
E:mail: tom_stehn@fws.gov

 

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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.