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Whooping Crane Census Flight
April 21, 2009

The eleventh aerial census of the 2008-09 crane season at Aransas was conducted April 21, 2009 with USFWS observer Tom Stehn in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas. Viewing conditions were ideal with clear skies and moderate winds. Nearly all parts of the crane range were flown.

Migration

Today's flight tallied 20 adults plus 1 juvenile = 21 total. BLACKJACK! Thirteen of the cranes were located on the BLACKJACK Peninsula (Aransas NWR), 6 were on Matagorda Island, and 2 at Welder Flats. Thus, 91.5% of the flock has started the migration (226 birds out of 247), including all known adult pairs. Eighty-eight cranes have started the migration since the last flight on April 7th when 109 cranes were estimated present. Whooping cranes in migration have recently been reported as far north as Saskatchewan. Some cranes not tallied above presumably headed north today since conditions were very good for migration with sunny skies and mostly southwest and south winds after several days of unfavorable migration weather.

Eight of the 21 cranes located on today's flight were singles. The one juvenile present was closely associated in a group with 3 white-plumaged cranes, the largest group observed on today's flight. The juvenile's parents have presumably started the migration and left "junior" behind. This juvenile crane will be fine and has the knowledge to make the return migration to Wood Buffalo National Park on its own or with other subadult cranes.

Whooping Crane Numbers

With estimated losses that have occurred at Aransas this winter, the current flock size is estimated at 225 adults + 22 juveniles = 247. The estimated peak winter flock size was 232 adults + 38 juveniles = 270 total.

Habitat use

For the first time all winter, all the whooping cranes on today's flight were found in salt marsh. The cranes are believed to be feeding on fiddler crabs since blue crabs in the marsh ponds are still scarce due to the continuing drought. A blue crab count done on April 1st found zero crabs in the marsh. The refuge has discontinued its program of supplemental feeding with corn since most of the cranes have migrated.

A lightning-caused wildfire that started April 18th on Matagorda Island burned approximately 10,000+ acres of upland prairie lands. The fire, located between Pringle Lake and Power Lake, was contained on April 20th and allowed to burn out. The burn will benefit the prairie habitat by recycling nutrients and controlling brush.

By Tom Stehn - Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

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.