The beloved whooping crane, one of the world’s rarest birds and a summer guest in Wood Buffalo National Park, is growing in numbers according to the latest survey from the US.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service counted 304 wild whooping cranes in the survey area, a 154,000-acre expanse on and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas where the population winters each year, up from 257 last year.
The numbers are good news for the fragile population of cranes and consistent with an upward trend recorded over the last several years, Wade Harrell, US Whooping Crane coordinator, told The Journal.
Harrell said Aransas was hit by a drought over the last two winters, which likely affected the previous survey results, as the cranes sought refuge outside of the coastal wetlands they usually call home.
“This year we did have a bit better year in terms of rainfall and coastal marsh conditions and food resources available, so we did have a good recruitment year for juvenile birds coming down from Canada,” he said.
Spring migration has already begun for a handful of the cranes, with reported sightings in Oklahoma and Kansas along their migration route last week, Harrell said.
“I would expect within the next week or so we will start getting more spring-time southerly winds and more of the population will start northward. You would expect most of the cranes to leave Texas by mid April,” he said.
The cranes will likely reach Wood Buffalo as early as May, he added.
Cranes face threats during winter
As the cranes relax in the marshy warmth of Texas during the winter season, Harrell said they face certain threats that are closely monitored by US biologists. One of those threats is people.
“We don’t have the large, roadless preserve that you have in Canada, so there are people around cranes all the time, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does produce the possibility of threats,” Harrell said.
US whooping crane conservationists made some headway in the last two years with news from the US Wetland Reserve Program that an additional 15,000 acres of whooping crane habitat would be conserved around the Texas coast.
Another threat faced by the wintering cranes is their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico where there is significant chemical and petroleum shipping.
“There’s always an outside chance that you would have a spill and that would be a very significant threat that we try and plan for,” Harrell said.
Parks Canada in Texas
Wood Buffalo National Park staff Rob Kent and Janna Jaque were recently in Aransas to present at the annual Whooping Crane Festival.
The presentation was standing room only with so many whooping crane enthusiasts crowding in to hear from the Canadians.
Deemed one of the best to date, this year’s festival, held Feb. 20 to 23, drew more than 700 registered participants from across the world to see the rare birds close up.