Whooping cranes head for winter homes in Texas

Whooping cranes head for winter homes in Texas
After a summer of nesting in Wood Buffalo National Park, the whooping cranes are making their journey south to wintering grounds in Texas.Photo: John McKinnon.

Winter is fast approaching and that means Wood Buffalo National Park’s whooping cranes are heading out to their seasonal home in Aransas, Texas.

Sightings recorded by Environment Canada last week place groups of cranes all along the migration route, with some stragglers sighted in the park.

The whooping crane – one of the world’s rarest birds, protected in Canada under Species At Risk legislation – has seen steadily increasing numbers due in no small part to efforts to protect them, Mark Bidwell, a species at risk biologist with Environment Canada, told The Journal.

“Protection of the breeding habitat was a main factor,” Bidwell said, noting that the park is remote and isolated from people, meaning minimal subjection to human disturbances.

This year, researchers counted around 300 whooping cranes in the wild flock, a much higher number than historical lows in the 1940s when less than 20 were found, but still low enough to be considered endangered.

Bidwell said migration is considered a risky time for the whooping cranes, with data suggesting mortality rates are at their highest as the birds come into contact with highly populated areas along their route south.

The Alberta oilsands are one of the risk factors located along the cranes’ migration route, he said.

Tailings ponds – areas where the oilsands’ refuse chemicals and residual bitumen are mixed with water and clay – have been known to kill hundreds of migratory birds yearly, despite efforts from the companies to deter them.

Bidwell said that, to date, Environment Canada has no evidence of whooping cranes landing in oilsands tailings ponds; however, data shows they are using nearby wetlands during migration.

“As part of the Joint Oilsands Monitoring Program, both Canada and Alberta have increased their efforts to monitor biodiversity and wildlife in the oilsands region and that includes whooping cranes,” Bidwell said.

Other risk factors for the birds include power lines, which the cranes have been known to collide with.

Bidwell said the Canadian Wildlife Service has been promoting the use of bird flight diverters – reflective fixtures placed at intervals along power lines – to deter birds.

“By working with conservation groups and working with industry to create solutions that promote conservation of whooping cranes, some of those activities have also had an impact on increases to population,” he said.

Local input sought

This year, researchers recorded eight whooping crane nests located outside Wood Buffalo park boundaries – the most ever found – which shows the flock is expanding.

Once outside the national park, the cranes are still protected as a species at risk, but their nesting sites would no longer be considered a protected area, meaning they are susceptible to human activities such as hunting and recreation.

Bidwell said he believes hunters, trappers and those who live on the land do not necessarily represent a threat to the cranes’ breeding grounds.

“Local hunters and trappers are very aware of the importance of conserving whooping cranes and they’re aware of the fact they can’t be hunting and, more than that, they should not be disturbed,” he said.

In the future, Bidwell said he hopes his research on whooping cranes will include working with local land users, environmental groups and Aboriginal groups, to expand beyond science-based data.

“We understand that the scientific work that we do, for example the monitoring, is really only one part of the equation,” he said. “We think that local people and local land users have a lot of knowledge about wildlife and we’re interested to know what they know about whooping cranes.”

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