Table set for whooping cranes: Birds return to winter home in wildlife refuge

Dec 5, 2010 | Corpus Christi Caller Times by Jaime Powell | Related Press

ARANSAS COUNTY — It’s a wonderful time of year — for South Texas whooping cranes.

There are bountiful blue crabs and wolfberries, a crane’s favorite meat and veggie combo, and an abundance of drinking water at the crane’s winter home in Aransas County, said Vicki Muller, a crane specialist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The flock, which is the only naturally occurring whooping crane population in the world, has been arriving since late October. Biologists counted 237 Thursday — 199 adults and 38 juveniles.

“It appears migration is nearing completion,” Muller said. “Normally they starting arriving Oct. 15, but this year they had a slower start because the weather up north was pretty mild. So there wasn’t anything to bring them down.”

The pair that remains the farthest north is in Oklahoma, so most should be here in the next few days, Muller said. If all goes as hoped, by Christmas there could be as many as 285, including three sets of twins.

The number of twins is impressive because although whooping cranes often have two eggs, usually only one youngster survives, Muller said.

The whooping cranes, among the most endangered of any species, have faced rough conditions in South Texas for the past couple of years because of drought. By this time last year, rain had started to improve the situation somewhat, Muller said. Now, after months of regular rainfall, conditions are ideal.

“They feed heavily on blue crabs and wolfberries, and salinity levels in San Antonio Bay are low enough for them to drink from the marsh, so they are not having to exert extra energy looking for water,” Muller said.

The cranes also had a productive season at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, where they spend each summer raising their young.

“We are hopeful that we will continue to have a great season leading up to migration, as well as another productive spring for breeding,” Muller said.

For ecotourists, catching a glimpse of the elusive 5-foot-tall birds will be tougher than last year. Because blue crabs and wolfberries were scarce last year due to drought conditions, some whoopers hung out at a deer feeder along the Lamar waterfront where onlookers could get a close-up view.

This year, because food is plentiful in the marshes, private boat tours offered by guides are the best chance to see them, Muller said.

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