Whooping cranes expected to set another record at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Nov 10, 2011 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Mark Collette | Related Press

Whooping cranes expected to set another record at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Aransas refuge expects some 300 birds

By Mark Collette

Originally published 03:00 a.m., October 24, 2011
Updated 06:00 a.m., October 24, 2011

ARANSAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — The flock of whooping cranes headed for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on its yearly migration is expected to set a record for the second straight year, the refuge manager said.

“We’re eagerly anticipating approximately 300 birds this year,” Dan Alonso said.

That would break the 2010 population of about 280 whooping cranes that made the 2,400-mile journey from Canada to the Coastal Bend.

A record 75 nests in Canada in August spawned 37 chicks, Alonso said.

One confirmed whooping crane sighting occurred near Sinton, he said. None of the 22 radio-tagged birds in the flock had arrived as of Friday.

Despite a record-setting statewide drought, wildlife officials haven’t seen a severe decline in the whooping cranes’ favorite prey, the blue crab, and that’s puzzling biologists, Alonso said.

The Aransas flock had a tough winter in 2008-09, when drought brought high salinity to marshes and hurt the crab population. The flock was down to about 247 but rebounded to 264 during the winter of 2009-10.

Because the transcontinental journey requires enormous energy reserves, even slight changes in weather and habitat can have lasting consequences for the birds.

Alonso said recent rainfall of about 2 inches has replenished drinking water sources for the whoopers, and about 20 ponds created by windmill pumps are available for the birds to drink.

The flock also will benefit from prescribed burns across 9,800 acres of the refuge this year. The burns make it easier for the cranes to find prey, and they feed on creatures that perish in the fires, Alonso said.

“We do need more precipitation,” he said. “If we don’t get any in the six months they’re here, the cranes will have a real tough time.”

The population has risen from 16 birds in the 1940s. Known for their size and their trademark honking sounds, the cranes stand up to 5 feet tall with a wingspan of more than 7 feet. They are marked by black wingtips and red crowns.

Read the entire article »