Endangered whooping cranes have begun their annual 2,400-mile fall migration from Canada to Texas. As the rare birds approach the Lone State, a citizen science initiative is inviting Texas residents and visitors to report whooper sightings.
Texas Whooper Watch (tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes
Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas. This year, some of the whooping cranes from an experimental flock in Louisiana spent most of the summer months in Texas, and the Whooper Watch volunteers were able to provide valuable information to TPWD, Louisiana Game and Fish and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service about these birds.
This year biologists expect Whooping Cranes to start arriving in Texas in late October or early November. Texas Whooper Watch will also help improve the accuracy of surveys on the wintering grounds, as the growth of the flock has made traditional census methods more difficult.
Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting (71 percent of all observations) is fewer than three birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane. Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. The cranes are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.
Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whooping cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations. Sightings can be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” in order to collect more detailed data may also contact the TPWD at email@example.com or 512-389-TXWW (8999).