With the first sightings of iconic, endangered whooping cranes along the Texas coast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is reminding Texans to be on the lookout for these impressive birds as they move through the state. The whooping crane faces a harrowing, 2,500 mile journey from the breeding grounds in the marshy taiga of northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park to the coastal marshes of Texas each year. The migration south to Texas can take up to 50 days with the population typically travelling in small groups. Manmade structures like power lines, communication towers, and wind turbines pose significant threats, as do more natural perils like predators and harsh weather.
Along the way, whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields to roost and feed in, and they often pass large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco, and Austin. Though they rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, it is important that they not be disturbed or harassed at these stopovers; in fact, as a federally protected species, it is illegal to do so.
The first whooper pair of the season was spotted in the Seadrift area on Oct. 9, and additional sightings were reported at Goose Island State Park Oct. 17 and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Oct. 18. Last year, heavy rains resulted in improved forage and habitat for whoopers in coastal marshes, but experts say this year looks to be headed in the other direction. Since June, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has recorded only 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regard to what the future holds.
Although food and habitat is not as abundant as last year due to the drought, Aransas NWR staff burned a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island and an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units this year to provide access to upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes. By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, additional foraging habitat has been created that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access.
The tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane, is also one of the rarest. With a current population of around 504 individuals, whooping cranes are slowly returning from the brink of extinction thanks to coordinated conservation efforts. This year was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park, with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed south on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.
The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, the only “natural” flock of whooping cranes in the world, spends each winter in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport. However, with population expansion in recent years they have begun spending time in more untraditional areas, venturing some distance from the refuge to find food and other resources.
“These iconic, endangered species deserve our respect as they migrate through the central flyway, and we ask the public to avoid disturbing them if spotted,” states Wade Harrell, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator. “Along with whooping cranes migrating from Canada, Texas has had a few visiting whooping cranes from a reintroduced population in southwest Louisiana. These cranes are all marked with leg bands and have been most commonly spotted in southeastern Texas, near Beaumont.”
With sandhill crane and waterfowl hunting seasons open and whooper migration in full swing, TPWD urges hunters to be extra vigilant. Whooping cranes are sometimes found in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are gray and slightly smaller. With their all-white body plumage and black wingtips, whooping cranes may also resemble snow geese, which are much smaller and have faster wing beats. Here’s a video detailing the differences between snow geese and whooping cranes.
There are several other non-game species that are similar in appearance such as wood storks, American white pelicans, great egrets and others, but a close look will reveal fairly obvious differences. More information on look-alike species is available online.
The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to TPWD’s Whooper Watch, a citizen-science based reporting system to track whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas. More information about Whooper Watch, including instructions for reporting sightings, can be found online and by downloading the iNaturalist mobile app. These observations help biologists identify new migration and wintering locations and their associated habitats.