Aransas Census Flight Report 12-10-09

The third aerial census of the 2009-10 whooping crane season was conducted December 10, 2009 in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas with USFWS observer Tom Stehn. Sighted on the flight were 211 adults and 19 juveniles = 230 total. This was an increase of 20 cranes since the previous flight conducted December 2nd. With 230 at Aransas and 8 known to still be in migration, currently 238 whooping cranes can be accounted for. I am expecting up to 22 juveniles based on August fledging surveys done on the nesting grounds by CWS. With that number of juvenile produced, the flock may experience a break-even year with a flock total around 247 expected.

December 10th – Recap of whooping cranes (230) found at Aransas on the aerial:
*Since 6 family groups were present on Matagorda Island on the December 2nd flight, it is possible that one family group was overlooked on today’s flight. However, it is also possible a Matagorda Island family group from N. Power Lake had moved over to N. Shoalwater Bay where there was an additional family on today’s flight.

Migration Update: Cold fronts that reached Aransas on December 4th and 9th helped 20 additional cranes complete their 2,400-mile long migration. Additional cranes are known to still be in migration. Four were present at Quivira NWR on December 7th even though the marshes were about 90% frozen. Four were recently sighted west of Mad Island Preserve in Matagorda County Texas about 40 miles northeast of Aransas. Two cranes that have been staying east of Tivoli about 15 miles north of Aransas were located on today’s flight in the Hynes Bay Unit of the Guadalupe Delta Wildlife Management Area operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Crane Identities: We are not sure if the Lobstick pair has returned this fall. However, 2 cranes that may have been the Lobsticks were sighted on the Lobstick territory on December 9 and 10. If present, the Lobstick male is 31 years old.

Habitat Use: Tides measured at the refuge boat ramp were high (2.7 feet). Salinities currently at 8 parts per thousand in San Antonio Bay have dropped noticeably in November and December so that the cranes are drinking directly from the marsh and have stopped making flights to fresh water dugouts. An extremely heavy rain event on November 20th with some coastal areas getting up to 16 inches has filled refuge dugouts and swales and flooded portions of the uplands on San Jose Island and Welder Flats. Conditions are very wet. Since that rain event, some blue crabs seem to have moved into the marshes, and some cranes have recently been observed catching blue crabs 2-3 inches in size. However, 65 cranes on today’s flight were sighted on uplands. These cranes were mostly foraging on patches of bare ground, some flooded and some dry. This behavior is indicative of a less than optimal food situation for the cranes. Although some wolfberry flowers are still present in the marshes, few berries are present and have stopped making up a significant part of the crane diet. An additional 5 cranes on today’s flight were on a shell road in the uplands. No cranes were at game feeders or in open bay habitat, and there are currently no prescribed burns in the crane area. The largest group size observed was 8 birds seen on the uplands on San Jose accompanied by sandhill cranes. More black mangrove was noted on Ayes and Roddy islands.

Flight Conditions: Visibility was good for most of the flight, but darker overcast at times made for somewhat challenging viewing conditions. Due to limited flight hours, the aircraft was usually kept at 140 knots making it a lively task to find all the cranes. Total flight time was 4.6 hours and we felt a very good count was achieved despite some crane movements that had to be sorted out as cranes moved to and from the uplands.

– Tom Stehn, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge