Archive for the ‘Aransas Updates’ Category

TAP Urges Attendance at Whooping Crane Count Meeting

October 22, 2012

by Ron Outen, Regional Director, The Aransas Project

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold a second Public Meeting at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, October 24th. The public is urged to attend to learn about the Service’s new method to count whooping cranes.

It was truly gratifying to see the great outpouring of support for and interest in the whooping cranes from the Rockport community at the October 4th presentation by USFWS on the new distance sampling methodology being used at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The questions asked by the audience demonstrated again that the Aransas-Rockport area is one of the most knowledgeable and engaged communities anywhere, especially when it comes to the whooping crane.

We hope that folks who attended that first public presentation, as well as others who may have been unable to attend, will attend a second public presentation being offered by USFWS:                                        

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
6 to 8 p.m.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
(six miles south of Austwell on Farm-to-Market Road 2040)

Because USFWS issued its  Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane Abundance Survey (2011 – 2012) only one day before the October 4 briefing, this is a great opportunity to ask further questions of Aransas Refuge staff after having had more opportunity to review the report, or simply to ask questions that you didn’t get a chance to ask last time.

Video of October 4th presentation  Available Online:

The Aransas Project has posted a video documenting the two-hour public presentation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the distance sampling methodology in use at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge during the last wintering season. The presentation was held on Oct. 4, 2012 in Fulton, and includes the formal presentation as well as questions from the audience following the presentation. While there was a great crowd on hand with many well-informed questions, we know that many people were not able to attend. We hope that this video documentation is helpful to the whooping crane community around the world in staying informed on this critical issue.

As you can see in the next article below, the defendants in TAP’s litigation have sought to supplement the record with USFWS’ Oct. 3 report, which is critical of Stehn’s methodology. We think that you will find that the tone of the presentation captured in the video differs significantly in its characterization of Stehn’s work from that of the written report released by USFWS one day prior to that public meeting. It also gives you a great sense of the strong level of public engagement on this issue.

Defendants Seek to File USFWS Report in TAP Litigation:

Judge Will Not Admit Without Full Evidentiary Hearing to Probe Credibility

As reported recently by Matthew Tresaugue of the Houston Chronicle, TAP supporters should also be aware that the State of Texas, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and other defendants have sought to introduce USFWS’ Oct. 3 report into evidence more than 9 months after the close of the trial in TAP’s lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act. The Oct. 3 report criticizes the previous census method and introduces USFWS’ new statistical modeling method of estimating peak flock size. The previous census method was used since 1982 by USFWS’s own prior Crane Coordinator, Tom Stehn. Stehn’s work led the recovery and survey of this species until he retired in September 2011.

The federal district judge presiding over the case has indicated that the report will not be admitted into evidence without a full evidentiary hearing at which the authors of the report from USFWS are available would be required to testify. Read more about this development.

Crane Migration Back to Texas Coast Underway:

All of us who love the cranes are excited that the annual migration back to the Texas coast from the summer nesting grounds in Canada is underway. In a blog post entitled,Whooping Cranes Migrating South to Texas” , Chester McConnell of the The Whooping Crane Conservation Association reports that the cranes had a successful summer nesting season. Check out Chester’s post to learn more about estimates on the number of cranes expected to arrive at the Refuge.

The Victoria Advocate Editorial Board also issued an editorial on the return of the cranes, encouraging residents to visit the Refuge to see the cranes and noting significantly that:

In a way, the cranes are protecting us as well. Their protected status limits the amount of water that can be taken from the rivers feeding into the refuge in order to maintain the correct balance in the estuary that houses the cranes’ major food source. While this may be an inconvenience for some area industries, it ultimately protects our waters from being siphoned away from our area, keeping it here to meet the needs of area residents and wildlife.

While all of us in the Coastal Bend need no reminder of the critical link between our well-being and that of the cranes, it is encouraging to see this message from the Advocate’s Editorial Board.

Thanks so much for your continued support. Please feel free to forward this on to a friend.

Whooping Cranes Migrating South to Texas

October 17, 2012

by Chester McConnell, Whooping Crane Conservation Association

They are on their way! The whooping cranes have departed from their Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds in Canada and are migrating towards Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. For many thousands of years the endangered cranes have made this annual 2,400 mile migration. It is one of nature’s wonders.

Whooping Crane Migration Routes

Whooping Crane Migration Routes

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association has received dozens of reports of whoopers from birders in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada and North Dakota, Nebraska and Texas. Approximately 300 whoopers are expected to arrive at Aransas Refuge by late November. Hopefully the thirty-four (34) juvenile cranes that were observed on the Canadian nesting grounds will all make it to Texas with the adult birds.

During the nesting period in May sixty six (66) whooping crane nests were discovered by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Three months later in August, an additional three (3) family groups were identified indicating that there were at least sixty-nine (69) nesting attempts during the 2012 nesting season. In early August, just prior to fledging, thirty-four (34) young including two (2) sets of twins were observed on the breeding grounds. Ten of the young whooping cranes were marked with leg bands and satellite transmitters so details about their migration can be learned.

Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through Saskatchewan, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In central Texas they fly near cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria.  During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields

 They nearly migrate in small groups of less than 4 to 6 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane.  They are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet tall.  They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched. Hunters are urged to learn to identify whooping cranes to avoid mistaking them for some other birds.To help identify whooping cranes, please click on the following link:

Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s, whoopers have, with few exceptions, always wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  However, in the winter of 2011-12, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include more coastal areas and even some inland sites in Central Texas, Kansas and Nebraska—patterns that surprised crane biologists.  Texas has initiated the “Texas Whooper Watch” program that asks the public to help us discover more about where whooping cranes stop in migration and to be ready to learn more about these potential new wintering areas. The Whooping Crane Conservation Association and Texas will share information collected about whoopers from birders to improve our knowledge about the birds.

The Whooping Crane Conservation Association is hopeful for a much better winter season on Aransas Refuge. As most whooping crane interests know, last winter on the refuge was abnormal in several respects, including severe drought conditions and poor food availability. Some of the cranes spent some or all of the winter away from Aransas making accurate counts of the birds impossible. During the past several months, the Aransas area has received more rain and habitat conditions are improved. Blue crab numbers have rebounded along the Aransas Refuge coast and the returning whooping cranes will, at least, start out with a good food supply. Hopefully the wolfberry crop will improve and be another source of food.

Whooping Crane Program Concerns

September 29, 2012

by Chester McConnell, Editor

As editor of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association web page, I am concerned about several issues associated with the Aransas/Wood Buffalo whooping crane flock. These issues include the: (1) lack of information available to the public related to the apparent decline in the population of the cranes from 279 cranes in 2010-2011 to 245 cranes in 2011-2012; (2) the proposed new statistical sampling method to monitor the whooping crane population; and (3) the increasing difficulty to obtain information from government agencies that manage the flock.      

Whooping cranes in Aransas NWR marsh.

Whooping cranes in Aransas NWR marsh.

 I recognize that there have been several major changes in management personnel in both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. Replacing long-term, experienced employees in complex programs normally results in some glitches. And then, the unusual weather and related food availability during the past year has seemingly caused migration abnormalities. I try to take these into consideration. Yet, when we cannot get any information on the whooping crane reproduction circumstances on Wood Buffalo habitats, I cannot fathom that. Good golly, the cranes are already beginning their migration south to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas and we have not heard a word about hatching success and related information during the past spring and summer. Why?

A major factor in the success of any program such as the whooping crane endangered species project is strong public support. Officials involved in the program today would be wise to review the history concerning how the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock project evolved. In summary it was largely due to strong public pressure and long-term support from early U.S. and Canadian leaders in the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. We want to continue supporting the program but we need information from government project personnel to do so.

I visited the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge this week and discussed some of these issues with a couple of officials. The refuge is being managed well and the new observation tower is a tremendous improvement. They invited me to attend the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meeting in Fulton, Texas October 4, 2012 to participate in a briefing on crane survey methodology changes. Hopefully, we will at least get some answers and improved understanding about what is going on during this session. I urge you to attend.

UPDATE: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released (October 3, 2012) it’s report, Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Crane Abundance Survey (2011-2012)”. We will be studying the report but have included it here so you, our viewers, will have the most current information.

The following news release provides details about the meeting.
News Release: Updates from The Aransas Project  SEP 28, 2012

The Aransas Project (TAP) Members Urged to Attend Briefing on Crane Survey Methodology Changes

TAP members are urged to attend a critical public meeting being hosted by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to address the changes being made in the survey methods used to count the endangered whooping cranes that winter at the Refuge. Beginning in the winter of 2011-2012, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) altered its methodology for tracking how many cranes are in the flock and this will be the first public meeting providing any insight or explanation of their methods. TAP members are strongly encouraged to attend to remain informed on this critical issue.

Thursday, October 4, 2012
6 PM to 8 PM
Paws and Taws Convention Center
402 North Fulton Beach Road, Fulton, TX 78358

According to a USFWS news release, the presentation “will investigate and define aerial survey methods used historically and currently to count the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock of whooping cranes.” Refuge Biologist Brad Strobel will lead the presentation, and there will be a Q&A session following the presentation.

State of the Flock Report: TAP Concerns Persist

In July 2012, TAP released our State of the Flock 2011-2012 report, highlighting the following concerns:

• USFWS Methodology Faulted

Concerns regarding the new statistical sampling method used by USFWS, including reported concerns by former Refuge Biologist and Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator Tom Stehn;

• Whooping Crane Flock Numbers Plunge during Winter 2011-2012

A stunning decline in the population of the cranes, even under USFWS’ statistical sampling method, from 279 cranes in 2010-2011 to 245 cranes in 2011-2012; and

• Tracking Data Suggests Unprecedented Crane Mortality

Evidence gathered from a smaller population of cranes tracked by GPS that suggests an unprecedented crane mortality of 9.6% in this monitored subgroup of birds that exceeds the previous high mortality rate of 8.5% experienced during the winter of 2008-2009.

USFWS Yet to Deliver Final Report

In their June 14, 2012 report, USFWS indicated they would issue a final “State of the Cranes” report by August 2012 summarizing the significant events that occurred during the 2011-12 whooping crane season. To date, USFWS has not released this annual state of the flock report.

TAP remains concerned about the absence of this report along with the changes in the survey methodology being used by USFWS to monitor the health of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, and invites TAP members to come to the meeting to remain informed on this issue and ask questions of the Refuge staff.

USFWS Appoints New Crane Coordinator, Dr. Wade Harrell

In related news, USFWS recently issued a news release announcing the appointment of Dr. Wade Harrell as the new Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator. According to the release, Wade will be part of the Region 2 Recovery staff in Albuquerque, but he will be based at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. TAP welcomes Dr. Harrell in his important new role, and we hope that TAP members will have the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrell at the upcoming meeting.

We hope that you will join us.

Thanks so much for your continued support. Please feel free to forward this on to a friend.

Ron Outen

State of The Whooping Crane Flock 2011-2012

July 9, 2012

by The Aransas Project

July 9, 2012: The Aransas Project (TAP) prepared this State of the Flock 2011-2012 report to provide critical information to our members and to the public regarding the well-being of the Wood Buffalo-Aransas Whooping Crane flock after the 2011-2012 wintering season.

Whooping Crane Flock Numbers Plunge during Winter 2011-2012

TAP Western Flock Graph 2011-2012

Figure 1: Whooping Crane Flock Numbers Plunge during Winter 2011-2012

A recent news release issued by the Southwestern Region of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) confirms that the winter of 2011-2012 was one of the worst winter seasons in Texas for the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, the last remaining natural flock of Whooping Cranes that winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (see Figure 1).

USFWS official reports put the flock size at the end of the previous winter of 2010-2011 at 279 cranes. In the winter of 2011-2012, on the aerial surveys in late January 2012, USFWS counted only 193 birds and then used statistical methods to extrapolate from that number an estimated flock size of 245. This statistical estimate represents a decrease in flock size of 12.2% from the previous winter. This represents one of the largest declines in flock size ever recorded.

Despite these facts, USFWS officials have made several public statements, including “The flock is so large they can’t count individual birds,” that paint an overly optimistic, and ultimately misleading, portrait of the state of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock.

“The recent statements attributed to USFWS leave the public with the impression that the flock numbers are up,” says TAP legal counsel Jim Blackburn. “Yet, according to their own official reports, there are fewer birds. Any way you do the math, 245 is less than 279.”

Based on the aerial survey in late February 2012, USFWS reports that the flock size was estimated to be 196, notably less than the previous estimate of 245.

“Recent public statements by USFWS officials at the Refuge paint a rosy picture of the health of the flock when the scientific record says otherwise,” says Blackburn. “The facts are these—the size of the flock, even by USFWS’ own estimation, is lower than during the prior year, and the scientific record from electronically-monitored cranes in the flock suggests more cranes may have died than in the drought of 2008-2009, which was the highest mortality ever recorded. But we’ll never know what really happened, because USFWS has abandoned the methodology of counting individual cranes each month, as was done for 29 years, and instead has resorted to distance sampling of the birds, from which they then statistically extrapolate to provide an estimate of the flock size.”

USFWS Methodology Faulted

Beginning in the winter of 2011-2012, USFWS altered its methodology for tracking how many cranes are in the flock. “Every year but this year for 29 years, the former refuge biologist, Tom Stehn, did monthly flyovers during the wintering season and methodically counted every crane on the refuge, using both territories and defined transects to identify the birds,” says Blackburn. “This year the refuge didn’t do a census to count the cranes as they have every other year, but instead used a sampling method and also decreased the frequency of the flights.” Blackburn says TAP believes this methodology to be less reliable.

Stehn himself questioned the validity of the USFWS sampling methodology in a recent interview with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. In the interview, Stehn noted that the current sampling methodology used by USFWS, known as “distance sampling,” has an error range of 15%, which Stehn believes is far too high when dealing with a population of fewer than 300 endangered cranes.

Stehn told the Caller-Times, “I’m really frustrated and disappointed with the changes in the census the refuge has made. It’s simply not accurate enough when you’re dealing with such a small population of endangered birds.”

Stehn noted that the aerial census methodology he employed for nearly 30 years used flyovers on a much tighter grid and allowed him more flexibility to conduct more thorough searches off the search grid.

USFWS has cited the growing number of cranes in the flock as its justification for resorting to a sampling and estimating approach, rather than actual counting. Blackburn comments, “We don’t really understand that, because Tom Stehn seemed to manage just fine with more cranes. Recent statements by USFWS would make you think that they were covered up in cranes down there, which even their estimates don’t support.”

Tracking Data Suggests Unprecedented Crane Mortality

Recent statements by USFWS also create the impression that the number of cranes that died this past winter was far less than during the drought of 2008-2009 because fewer crane carcasses were found. A recent sworn statement filed by Whooping Crane expert, Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, the principal investigator in an ongoing research project electronically tracking 31 cranes in the Aransas flock using GPS bands, suggests that crane mortality may actually be higher than USFWS reports indicate.

According to Dr. Chavez-Ramirez’ statement:

  • The carcasses of three juvenile cranes were recovered during the 2011-2012 wintering season
  • Out of the 31 banded cranes, this is a mortality rate of 9.6%
  • Out of the ten banded juvenile cranes, the mortality rate is 30%
  • The documented mortality rate of 9.6% in this monitored subgroup of birds is “unprecedented” and exceeds the previous high mortality rate of 8.5% during winter 2008-2009

Blackburn says this scientific evidence suggests that more cranes may have perished due to the drought in 2011-2012 than in the prior drought of 2008-2009. “It seems like USFWS is sticking their heads in the sand down there in terms of the health of the flock,” says Blackburn.


The Aransas Project continues to seek responsible water management of the Guadalupe River Basin to ensure adequate freshwater inflows to the bays and estuaries that provide the winter habitat for the endangered Whooping Cranes. Until this problem is addressed, the future health of the bays and estuaries and of the Whooping Cranes will not be secure. “What we need, and should expect from USFWS, is a clear-eyed, scientific view of the state of the flock,” says TAP Regional Director Ron Outen. “TAP feels that residents of the Coastal Bend and the broader public need to know what is happening down here. We hope that it contributes to a better understanding of this critical and ongoing issue for the state of Texas.”

Leave a Comment

All Whooping Cranes Migrating To Canada

April 27, 2012
By: Chester McConnell, Whooping Crane Conservation Association
All whooping cranes that wintered on the Aransas National Refuge on the Texas coast have now departed for their nesting habitats at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. According to Dan Alonso, Refuge Manager, “Our staff has not detected any whooping cranes on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for more than week and it is believed that the birds are in full migration mode. They are arriving at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada where they nest exclusively. We continue to download data from the radio-marked birds, as well as receive information from actual sightings.”
The refuge is still waiting on the final report on the second whooping carcass recovered on Aransas Refuge (January 18). Now there is a third whooper carcass that must be examined. This one involves the criminal shooting of a whooping crane in South Dakota. This shooting is currently under investigation by federal and state authorities. The Whooping Crane Conservation Association has established a reward for information leading to the conviction of the whooper killing. For details on the reward click on the following link:

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Update

April 26, 2012

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its update report on April 26, 2012. All of the whooping cranes that wintered on the refuge have now departed for their Canadian nesting grounds. Some cranes have already reached the nesting area.


Whooping Crane Update –April 12, 2012

April 12, 2012

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has completed its update report on the status of whooping cranes on the refuge, migration progress, current habitat conditions, and status on birds found dead. To read the full report click on the following link:

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Update Report (041212_WCUpdate)

Whooping Cranes Begin Migration to Canada

April 12, 2012
by:  Chester McConnell, Whooping Crane Conservation Association    

An estimated 115 whooping cranes remain on, or near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Aransas Refuge officials report that, “Data from GPS-marked whooping cranes also indicates many of the birds have begun their migration. Approximately two thirds of the marked birds have left the Texas coast. Departure dates for those cranes in migration range between the 5th of March and 10th of April with an average departure date of 29 March. To date, none of the marked birds have arrived at Wood-Buffalo National Park. We continue to download data from the radio-marked birds, as well as receive information from actual sightings.”

Reports of whooping crane sightings made to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association indicate migrating birds are in every U.S. state and Canada along the migration route. The migration appears to be earlier this year and may be due to the warmer weather. Hopefully the nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada will be in suitable condition when the whoopers arrive there. here.

Photo by Daniel D’Auria

For those whoopers currently remaining on Aransas Refuge, habitat conditions appear to be improving. Aransas personnel report that, “As of April 11, the monthly precipitation totals for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge are 1.19 inches. Salinity levels in San Antonio Bay continue to remain under 20 parts per thousand (ppt) and are currently recorded at 16.5 ppt. Increased precipitation and fresh water inflows from Central Texas are helping to improve conditions in the marsh but the refuge is still not to pre-drought conditions.”

Remote Tracking of Aransas-Wood Buffalo Whooping Cranes

April 10, 2012

By:  Aaron Pearse, USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and Brad Strobel, USFWS, Aransas Wildlife Refuge

Since 2009, a partnership of agencies and organizations has been conducting research on the Aransas‐Wood Buffalo population of Whooping Cranes. Fundamental objectives of our research efforts are: 1) to advance knowledge of Whooping Crane breeding, wintering, and migratory ecology, including threats to survival and population persistence; 2) to disseminate research findings in reports, presentations, and peer‐reviewed literature to provide reliable scientific knowledge for conservation, management, and recovery of Whooping Cranes; and 3) to minimize negative effects of research activities to Whooping Cranes.

Funds and personnel in support of this endeavor are being contributed by the Canadian Wildlife Service, The Crane Trust, Plate River Recovery Implementation Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Parks Canada, International Crane Foundation, and Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.

Photo by: Bill Ravenscroft, TX

Whooping crane with transmitter on leg. Photo by Bill Ravenscroft, TX

To meet objectives, members of the partnership have captured and marked 35 Whooping Cranes. We captured one juvenile and two adults along the Gulf Coast of Texas during winters 2009 and 2010. Capture teams marked nine juveniles during August 2010 and 12 juveniles during August 2011 at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. In December 2011, we successfully captured and marked 11 cranes on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, eight of which were known or suspected paired adults.

Capture teams consist of individuals with experience handling and marking endangered cranes. At capture, a licensed veterinarian performs a health check on each crane, which includes an external examination and screenings for pathogens, toxins, and parasites. We affix all captured cranes with a satellite transmitter (Platform Transmitting Terminal) with Global Positioning System capabilities mounted on a two‐piece leg band. The transmitter and leg band weigh approximately 72 g, which is <1.5% of body weight of adult cranes.

Integrated solar panels on all exposed surfaces allow transmitters to function for approximately three to five years. Transmitters record GPS locations every six hours, providing detailed information on nocturnal and diurnal site use and general flight paths.
Approximately every 56 hours, transmitters upload new data, which assists in identifying mortality events when possible.

We have been collecting location data on marked birds since December 2009 and expect data collection to continue for at least the next three years. As our sample of marked cranes has expanded in 2011, expectation among research partners has increased as we begin to explore the volume of rich information provided by marked individuals. Partners agree that this opportunity to mark wild Whooping Cranes with GPS technology represents an exceptional prospect to enhance our understanding of  whooping Cranes and assess risks they face during their entire life cycle.

Article from The Unison Call, newsletter of the North American Crane Working Group

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Update

March 29, 2012

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report today describing the status of the whooping crane population on the refuge, water conditions and habitat improvements. Some whooping cranes have already started their migration north towards their nesting area at Buffalo National Park, Canada. Click on the following ling for the full report: