Aerial Survey Delayed for Whooping Cranes

By Chester McConnell, Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Has the number of whooping cranes currently wintering on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge attained the 300 population level as we have hoped? No one knows. Interested citizens from all over the United States and other countries have been waiting for months to learn if the record number of 300 birds was reached.

Aransas Refuge officials advised the Whooping Crane Conservation Association that, “For reasons beyond our control, we are not able to secure a government certified pilot and aircraft to complete an aerial survey but are working  diligently to alleviate this issue.”  So, as of January 16, 2012 no refuge-wide count of whooping cranes has been done . The Association recognizes the dilemma facing refuge officials and hopefully the problem will be solved soon.

The Association believes that it is essential for aerial surveys to be conducted on Aransas NWR to inventory the total wintering population of whooping cranes. There is no other practical method to gather the data needed. Aerial population surveys help determine the total number of whooping cranes, pair bonds, numbers of immature vs. mature birds, deaths of individuals, territory expansions, habitat utilization, water management needs and other general information to assist in the proper management of these endangered species.

The Aransas refuge staff is doing the best they can to get a partial count of the whoopers. They report that a survey by automobile was conducted on December 22, 2011 throughout the Blackjack peninsula of Aransas Refuge. A total of 45 whooping cranes were observed. Of course this does not represent the total population of whoopers because much of the refuge cannot be observed from roads. During their automobile road survey refuge biologists stated that whooping cranes observed at the refuge have bright white feathers indicating their overall body condition is good.

Despite potential threats this winter, whooping cranes continue to thrive and managers are doing everything possible to ensure their continued success. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge officials report that, “This has been a busy month for whooping crane activity since our last report in December 2011. Fortunately, the Refuge has received an additional 0.72 inches of precipitation but salinity levels remain higher than ideal.”  The recent rains that came to Texas caused flooding in some areas but little of that fell on Aransas.

Refuge Manager Dan Alonso advised that, “We have continued to help alleviate the low food resources by adding to our prescribed burn totals. This week alone we have burned an additional 4,682 acres of whooping crane habitat.  Biologists observed the whooping cranes eating acorns roasted by the fires and are seeing continued usage.”

One whooper chick was found dead from unknown causes on the refuge in December 2011. “The chick carcass was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI last month and there were inconclusive findings on the intermittent report. We are awaiting the final report, which will include virology results” according to Vicki Muller, Wildlife Refuge Specialist.

The latest data from Texas Parks and Wildlife officials indicate that red tide is still persisting in the bays along the Texas coast but in lower concentrations. Biologists continue to keep a vigilant watch for signs of illness or disease.