Migrating Whooping Cranes Arrive on Texas Coast

Migrating Whooping Cranes Arrive on Texas Coast

AUSTIN – On November 1, the first pair of whooping cranes of the year were spotted flying toward the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the southwest side of San Antonio Bay. Their arrival is about 10 days later than last year, but well within the typical arrival window, according to Kevin McAbee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator.

“It is always exciting when the first whooping cranes complete their fall migration and arrive in Texas,” said McAbee. “Flying during the day and resting at night, they have worked hard to reach their winter home in coastal Texas.”

As the iconic birds continue making their way across the state on their way to the coast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) reminds Texans to be on the lookout for this endangered species.

“Whooping cranes have spent all summer nesting and raising chicks in and around Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada,” said McAbee. “Now they are completing the approximately 2,500-mile journey south to their wintering grounds in Texas, a migration that can take up to 50 days.”

During their migration, whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields where they can roost and feed. The birds often pass large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin. Though whooping cranes rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, it is important that they not be disturbed or harassed at these stopovers. As a federally protected species, it is illegal to disturb or harass these birds.

Habitat Conditions

The conditions whooping cranes experienced in their summer nesting area in Canada are relatively similar to what they will find when they reach coastal wintering grounds. Drought and wildfire conditions through the summer degraded habitat quality, with thick smoke and dry wetlands throughout the nesting and rearing period.

“Luckily, most whooping cranes and nests were not directly impacted by fires,” said McAbee. “While these conditions may reduce the number of juvenile cranes that will arrive in Texas this year, we expect overall numbers to be similar to the estimated 540 whooping cranes that inhabited coastal Texas last year.”

Drought conditions are something the birds will have to contend with in their winter habitat, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Bay salinities are high following a dry summer, causing whooping cranes to be more likely to use freshwater habitats and new areas, some of which are more inland than previous years.

Mistaken Identity

The increasingly common use of inland areas by whooping cranes is a concern for conservationists, as these areas overlap with sandhill crane and other waterfowl habitats as well as hunting seasons.

TPWD urges hunters to take extra caution and be sure of bird species before taking a shot. Just because hunters are away from the Texas coast, doesn’t mean the bird in question is not a whooping crane. Cases of mistaken identity can happen, something that can be detrimental to the tallest and rarest species of bird in North America.

Whooping cranes are sometimes found in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are gray and slightly smaller. With their all-white body plumage and black wingtips, whooping cranes may also resemble snow geese, which are much smaller and have faster wing beats. A video detailing the differences between snow geese and whooping cranes can be found on the TPWD YouTube Channel.

There are several other non-game species that are similar in appearance such as wood storks, American white pelicans, great egrets and others, but a close look will reveal obvious differences. More information on look-alike species is available online.

Thanks to coordinated conservation efforts, these endangered birds are slowly returning from the brink of extinction.

Whooper Watch

The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to TPWD’s Texas Nature Trackers’ (TNT) Texas Whooper Watch, a citizen science-based reporting system that tracks whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas. For more information, visit the website to learn more about the program and download the iNaturalist mobile app to get started.

These observations help biologists identify new migration and wintering locations and their associated habitats. Questions about Texas Whooper Watch and other TNT programs that contribute to TPWD’s research and conservation efforts can be directed to TNT staff at tracker@tpwd.texas.gov.

Biologists remain optimistic that continued research and restoration work will ultimately lead to improved numbers of whooping cranes and say that new pending federal legislation, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), could help in a big way. RAWA would provide the funding needed to continue the important conservation work that is vital for whooping cranes and other species throughout Texas. Learn how to help through the Texas Alliance for America’s Fish and Wildlife online toolkit. Texas Wildlife Alliance is a grass roots coalition formed to support RAWA.