The large crane’s primary wintering grounds – the grounds where they feed and hangout while escaping the bitter cold of the North – is along the Texas Gulf Coast in the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.
The Aransas Wildlife Refuge is located in parts of Aransas, Refugio and Calhoun counties and is about 115,000 acres. The refuge is overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Wade Harrell, U.S. whooping crane recovery coordinator, on Friday, Feb. 8, said a survey was in the works, and new numbers would be available in a week or so.
However, the survey is only of the whooping cranes in the survey area – primarily the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. It does not cover birds outside the area.
Harrell said the whooping cranes have begun ranging to find new areas to winter in.
He mentioned Matagorda County, San Jose Island and Granger Lake northeast of Austin.
Ten whoopers were spotted and confirmed to be wintering at Granger Lake on Feb. 4.
“This is a response to resources,” Harrell said.
The refuge’s resources and area are probably maximized because of drought and the increasing number of the birds.
“This winter, we are still low on fresh water resources, and we are trying to mitigate,” Harrell said.
Ground water from reworked water wells are being used to push fresh water into the habitat. The fresh water enhances the growth of the food whooping cranes feed on.
Harrell said the numbers of the flock will probably be similar to last winter’s numbers.
“It may be a little higher,” he said.
Last winter, the flock suffered from the drought and a lack of resources and had diminished to about 245 birds from 280 birds.
Harrell said, however, the health of the flock is better ensured because it is ranging for resources.
“It’s a good sign for the health of the flock in the long run because they are using a lot larger range,” he said.
“We continue to see the expansion of the wintering range. They are off-and-on spotted.”
Harrell said the larger range will help the whooping crane survive during catastrophic occurrences such as hurricanes.
For now, the birds are readying to fly back to their nesting grounds.
“They will be leaving early to mid-March,” Harrell said.
“It’s not a mass migration. It’s a trickle effect,” he added.
And this time, some of the birds will be tracked with GPS bands.
“We marked 12 birds in the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. We’ll learn a lot more about their life cycle, where they stop to rest; and they move a lot more during the winter than we knew,” he said.
“This is a positive thing.”
Harrell said the refuge is in its second year with tracking partners, including the Canadian Wildlife Service, Crane Trust, U.S. Geological Survey, Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.