The Whooping Crane Festival is over and the 30th Annual Whooping Crane Strut will be happening Saturday, March 10. These are two signs the whooping cranes will soon be leaving to begin their spring migration in late March or early April as they return to their summer home in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. If you have not yet seen this large majestic crane, there are a few weeks left to make it happen.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas, is the primary winter home for the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock of whoopers. In the 2016-17 winter season, there were 431 whooping cranes, including 50 juveniles, in the approximately 153,950 acres which are studied. This marked the fifth year in a row that the population increased in size. The summer of 2017 was a record breeding year for the whooping cranes in Canada, with an estimated 63 fledglings headed South on their first migration to Texas in late fall of 2017.
Hurricane Harvey severely damaged this coastline including the Visitor’s Center and other structures of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge but the coastal marsh habitat of the whooping cranes seems to have quickly recovered. The Visitor Contact Station (across from the old Visitor Center) is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The auto tour and trails are cleared and open daily from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.
The observation towers continue to provide the best opportunity to view whooping cranes in the Refuge. A pair of binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens will be appreciated if a spot of white is seen in the distance. While there is no guarantee a whooping crane will be seen, there is always a chance.
The whoopers can also be seen in surrounding locations as they fly to a foraging marsh area to feed or return to roost. From December 2017 through February 2018, observers have reported seeing whooping cranes over the waters of Copano Bay and San Antonio Bay as well as in the Holiday Beach, Lamar, Rockport and Fulton areas. Three observers even reported seeing the large cranes in the flats south of Hwy 361 between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas.
Boats with a shallow draft, are able to get close to the marshy areas loved by the whooping cranes for a closer view, but not everyone owns a boat. Climbing aboard the Skimmer in Fulton Harbor for a Whooping Crane Tour is one option for a great possibility of catching a glimpse of a whopper from a watercraft. For the non-birders, Capt. Tommy Moore identifies each bird observed as the Skimmer goes through the connecting bays as he searches for where the cranes are on that day and time. Drawing on 15 years of experience, Capt. Tommy adds information about the marine habitat, as well as the feathered creatures noticed during the excursion.
On a recent Skimmer outing, Capt. Tommy announced this year he had added a new area to visit where he was seeing a large number of adolescent whoopers. He explained the whooping cranes in this territory were sub-adults and a few families.
For the non-birders, Capt. Tommy explained the fledging cranes are hatched in May or June in their summer home at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. They are able to make the 2500-mile trip back to Texas when they are between four and six months old. The juveniles stay with the parents as a family unit for their first year of life.
Capt. Tommy said when the whooping cranes return to Canada each spring, the parents run the juvenile off and it joins a group of sub-adults called cohorts.
“As cohorts, they learn how to smoke cigarettes and drink beer,” Capt. Tommy added. “Of course, I’m kidding!”, he responded to one astonished passenger’s remark.
They stay in the cohort for three to six years until they pair up and start to mate, then he added, “If you see more than two adult whooping cranes hanging out together and being nice to each other, they are sub-adults or teenagers.”
The Skimmer idled along the area where a family of cranes was on the western side. The male and female whoopers were feeding in their territory with their brown-headed juvenile close by. Farther to the east was a group of 15-20 cranes. This was the cohort of sub-adults. The Skimmer passengers watched as the teenage whooping cranes moved freely about, feeding, flying to another nearby location and generally appearing to enjoy the company of these “friends”.
After approximately 30 minutes, the captain announced it was time to begin the journey back to Fulton Harbor. As the passengers returned to their seats and carefully placed the binoculars and cameras in their cases, conversations centered on the unusual opportunity they just experienced watching the large group of young whooping cranes.
The days are now counting down. The exact date of the whooping cranes’ “lift-off” to begin their return to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada is known only to these majestic birds. If you want 2018 to be the year to see a whooper, make your plans quickly…or you will have to wait until November for their return.
The following links provided some information used in this blog but many more facts are there for the inquisitive mind. https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/34-Grus-americana