Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Birders asked to report migrating Whooping Cranes

This winter proved harsh for the big endangered birds that spend the colder months at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, Texas. Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the last wild flock of whooping cranes lost 21 birds - six adults and 15 chicks.

Wildlife officials ask that birders share sightings of the birds by calling toll-free 800-792-1112, extension 4644, or emailing leeann.linam@tpwd.state.tx.us.

Photo courtesy of Earl Nottingham/Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

From the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department news release:

When added to 34 birds that left Texas in spring 2008 and failed to return in 2009, Stehn said 20 percent of the flock was lost during the last 12 months. The upshot is that only 249 birds will make the trip north this year. After an encouraging multi-year comeback in which flock numbers have grown each year, this marks the first year bird numbers have declined since 2001.

Stehn attributes the winter losses to poor habitat conditions in wintering grounds on the middle Texas coast. Low rainfall in 2008 resulted in saltier bays and fewer blue crabs, the primary food source for wintering whoopers. In addition, according to Stehn, whoopers are further stressed when cranes must leave the bays to fly inland seeking fresh water. Several emaciated whooping crane carcasses were found, and refuge staff even took the unusual step of providing supplemental feeding over the winter in addition to burning upland areas to make acorns more available.

Occasional set-backs aren’t new to the whooping crane recovery story, a species that numbered only 49 as recently as 1975, according to Lee Ann Linam, biologist in the Wildlife Diversity Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"Although whooping crane numbers have experienced an amazing upward climb since conservation efforts began in the 1930s, over the course of their recovery we have occasionally seen short-term dips in the population," Linam said. "The losses this winter do emphasize the important role Texas has in maintaining the health of its bays and estuaries, especially in safeguarding stream-flow during low rainfall periods."

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