One of the greatest things about duck hunting and fishing on the middle Texas coast during the winter months is that you stand a very good chance of getting up close to one of the world’s most treasured birds – a whooping crane.
This winter was the best I’ve ever experienced when it comes to spotting and photographing whooping cranes. My first sighting was in early December while fishing at Port O’Connor with Victor Randazzo. We had caught close to 50 reds and trout in a backwater lagoon. As we neared a point on the way out I looked over and spotted two whooping cranes feeding along the bank. We circled around and I managed to get a couple of quick photos before they took to the air and casually flew out of sight.
About four weeks ago I was in Rockport and came up on a line of cars. Come to find out they were all birdwatchers and were snapping photos of 14 whoopers and five sandhill cranes that were feeding along the edge of a marsh. That’s as many cranes as I’ve ever seen in one area. Later that evening they flew, about 30 feet over our heads as they headed to their roost.
The most unusual thing I’ve even seen in the world of birdwatching was a pair of whoopers that was feeding along the Intracoastal Waterway with two wild hogs.
According to Steve Lightfoot with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, it’s been an unusual year for whooping cranes in Texas, and the endangered species’ spring migration is the latest example. Researchers report several whooping crane families initiated their spring migration nearly a month earlier than usual, with some birds having already reached South Dakota.
After a winter distribution that surprised biologists and kept birders enchanted with unprecedented sighting opportunities for one of North America’s most ancient bird species, the unusually early start of the migration to nesting grounds in Canada does not surprise Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Lee Ann Linam.
“This winter seemed to produce a ‘perfect storm’ of mild winter weather, reduced food sources on the Texas coast, and crowding in an expanding whooping crane population, which led whooping cranes to explore new wintering areas,” Linam said. “Those same conditions have likely provided the impetus for an early start of their 1,500-mile spring migration.”
Texas provides wintering habitat for the only self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world.
“Traditionally, whooping cranes spend December through March in coastal wetlands on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, between Rockport and Port Lavaca,” said Lightfoot. “In recent years, whoopers have slowly expanded their winter range — usually using coastal marshlands adjacent to already occupied areas.”
Linam says that in 2011-12, whoopers made significant expansions southward and westward of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and one whooping crane apparently spent the winter with sandhill cranes in upland habitats near El Campo.
“Nine whooping cranes, including six adults and three chicks, spent most of the winter near Granger Lake in Central Texas,” said Linam. “One family group of whooping cranes only traveled as far south as Kansas before heading back north to spend most of the winter in Nebraska.”
The unprecedented shifts may be indicators of both bad news and good news for the Texas flock, which is thought to now number about 300 birds.
“We are concerned about the health of our coastal estuaries and long-term declines in blue crabs, one of the traditional primary food sources for this population of whooping cranes,” said Linam. “At the same time, these cranes seem to be showing adaptability as the increasing population may be causing crowding in traditional habitats and drought may be producing less than ideal habitat conditions. I think it’s a good sign that whooping cranes are exploring and thriving in new wintering areas.”
This winter, birders and wildlife watchers in Texas have helped the state track some of the movements of whooping cranes, and Linam is asking Texans to be on the lookout for whoopers during the spring migration, which may extend through mid-April in Texas.
As incredible as it may sound, two whooping crane chicks were shot and killed in Louisiana on Oct. 10, 2011. Two alleged shooters have been identified. Tragically, these are the sixth and seventh shooting deaths of reintroduced endangered U.S. whooping cranes in 2011. With only about 430 whooping cranes now in the wild, each bird counts.