Whooper Outlook Concerns Officials

Mar 23, 2009 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Susan McFarland | Related Press

CORPUS CHRISTI — After suffering the worst winter in 20 years, the flock of whooping cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge soon will journey back to their summer home in Canada, but wildlife managers are concerned they have not had enough food to fatten them up for the 2,500-mile trip.

This season, the whooping cranes have had trouble finding food because low water levels have decreased the number of blue crabs, which make up 85 percent of their diet.

“These are the worst conditions I have ever observed for the cranes at Aransas, with some birds looking thin and with disheveled plumage,” wrote Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, in a March 15 report.

Though the drought is showing no sign of ending, rain received on March 14-15 helped a little, Stehn wrote.

The flock, the only naturally occurring population in the world and an endangered species, arrived this season at a record number of 270, up four from last year and rebounding from 15 birds in 1941. As of March 15, six adults and 15 chicks had died, leaving the flock with 249.

Some birds could start the trip to their summer home in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park as early as this week, but the majority will depart the first two weeks in April. Some could die during the migration because they are weak and malnourished, Stehn said.

Feeding wildlife seldom is encouraged, but to help supplement the cranes’ diet, the refuge set up 13 deer feeders with corn, said Dan Alonso, wildlife manager at the 115,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

“We had 44 or 45 different cranes feeding at the 13 feeders,” Alonso said. “We’ve been doing all we can to get them nourished.”

Other efforts to help include not allowing crab fishing in and around the refuge and conducting controlled burns to help with habitat management.

“It’s disappointing for us to see a bad year,” said Ray Allen, executive director for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program. “We are not going to give up. We have seen these kinds of setbacks before.”

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