“Last year’s estimate was 257 in the survey area we fly,” said Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“This year, the vast majority was in the survey area,” he added.
Harrell attributed the return of the cranes to the survey area because of the availability of food.
Apparently, blue crabs had returned, and the salinity of the water was lower.
“It seemed that way. Incidental observations were cranes catching and eating blue crabs,” he said.
However, Harrell said the Aransas Wildlife Refuge was still dry.
“Most of the water holes have a little water in them,” he said.
Last year, the drought played havoc on the whooping cranes, and that’s why they vacated the survey area.
“We get a few down years now and then. But the increase this year is pretty typical – about a four percent growth average,” he said.
Harrell said a small handful of whooping cranes were outside the survey area – about six were spotted mostly on the coast.
Last year, some whooping cranes made their wintering grounds at Granger Lake north of Austin. Not so this year.
“One family (of whooping cranes) moved up there in late February,” he said.
“We are seeing some use around the Mission Bay area, even toward Egery flats around Bayside. This is an example of a secondary survey area.
Overall, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was seeing a continued upward trend in whooping crane numbers over the last three years, and it was consistent with the long-term growth trend.
The primary survey area spans about 154,000 acres on and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Secondary areas (approximately 101,500 acres) on the Texas coast were surveyed to monitor expansion of the whooping crane’s winter range.
According to the Service, the precision of this year’s estimates was improved and achieved the target set in the protocol (coefficient of variation less than 10 percent).
Improved precision is due to increased observer experience and refinement of methods.
The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population is the only remaining wild flock of whooping cranes. This endangered bird nests in Canada and migrates 2,500 miles to winter on the Texas coast on and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
All of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes found wintering at the Refuge in 1941.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mission calls for working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.