A few weeks ago we had a Whooping Crane that was seen among a flock of Sandhill Cranes in different fields in and around Brazoria National Wildlife refuge. It was seen in the area for several days and many were lucky to get a look at it. The sighting was somewhat unusual as we expect Whooping Cranes to migrate through our area but we rarely have them spend too much time here. Sandhill Cranes are common winter residents to our area where we can see them roosting in shallow wetlands during the night and forging throughout the day in wetlands and pastures throughout the area. Whooping Cranes are only rarely seen in our area so it was a nice surprise to have one spend some time here. Whooping Cranes breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Northern Canada and migrate south to spend the winter in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, Texas. In the past Whooping Cranes were only rarely seen outside their winter range in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. However, as the population continues to increase and local conditions change so does the Whooping Crane’s behavior.
Because Whooping Cranes are regular visitors to the Texas coast most people are not aware they extremely rare and are still one of the most endangered birds worldwide. In 1941 only 16 individual Whooping Cranes were known to be alive in the world. At present the population is nearing 300 individuals. Whooping Cranes establish winter territories along the coastal salt marshes where they forage on marine crustaceans, wolfberry, and some upland invertebrate and vertebrates. Whooping Cranes appear to focus their foraging on blue crab when available. Anyone who has taken a boat from Rockport to watch Whooping Cranes is likely to have observed a Whooping Crane feeding on blue crabs.
In recent years, more and more Whooping Cranes have been observed in areas far removed from the traditional winter range. This is due to two things; more cranes are coming to Texas and changing conditions along the coastline. While the population increases, the amount of preferred salt marsh habitat does not. In addition, when drought conditions are present and less freshwater enters the estuaries near the Whooping Crane’s range the abundance and availability of blue crab diminishes. Less food in the salt marsh territories means Whooping Cranes will search for better conditions elsewhere, leading to more sighting outside the range.
Whooping Crane with crab, Photo By Diane Loyd
Understanding where Whooping Cranes go to search for food or identifying areas where they may spend the winter is very important for the long-term conservation of this species. In order to better document observations by Texas citizens Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has established a program called Texas Whooper Watch. Anyone can participate by reporting sighting of Whooping Cranes throughout Texas. If you have any sightings to report please do so to: firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 792-1112 ext. 8999. The fact that Whooping Cranes may be exploring areas outside their traditional winter range may create new opportunities for other people to observe this species in a larger section of the Texas including our own area. So keep your eyes open for the tallest bird in North America which is more and more likely to be seen around our area. And do not forget to report your sighting.
Written By Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, PhD, Director, Conservation Programs