November 15, 2008
An aerial whooping crane census was conducted 14 November 2008 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas. Present were 210 adults and 29 juveniles = 239 total. With a strong cold front reaching Aransas at 2200 hours on November 14th, additional reports brought the estimated Aransas total by noon on November 15th to 214 + 32 = 246.
Recap of cranes (239) found at Aransas on the aerial census:
| |Adults + young|
| Refuge | 79 + 11 |
| Lamar | 11 + 0 |
| San Jose | 35 + 5 |
| Matagorda | 63 + 9 |
| Welder | 18 + 4 |
| Flats | |
| farm fields| 4 + 0 |
| Total |210 + 29 = 239|
The first aerial census of the 2008-09 crane season was conducted in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas with USFWS observer Tom Stehn. Weather conditions were ideal during the 5-hour flight with sunshine and light winds.
Migration Updates: The first whooping crane arrival at Aransas was reported the afternoon of October 20th. USFWS Pilot/Biologists Jim Bredy and Patrick Walther spotted the single crane on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge while doing an aerial waterfowl survey. The October 20th sighting was just 4 days after the average first whooping crane arrival date of October 16th. A cold front with north winds that reached Aransas on October 17th presumably helped the crane complete the 2,400 mile migration.
Additional cold fronts reached the Texas coast on October 3 and 27 and November 7, 11 and 14.
I collated sighting reports from portions of the wintering area and came up with the following minimum number of cranes present.
Date of Cranes Present
October 20 1
October 25 6
October 28 21
October 30 47
November 2 53
November 6 81
Friday Nov. 7th was a big day for whooping crane migration across Texas. I collected information on four Texas sightings made November 8 and 9 (2 cranes in Temple, 3 in Waco, 6 in Goliad, and 1 in Calallen). Based on these reports and good migration weather, I guesstimated about 200 whooping cranes to be present by November 9th. The November 14th census flight refined this number to be 239. This included 4 whooping cranes confirmed present on Heron Flats near the refuge headquarters both the morning and evening on November 14th, a bit of marsh that I did not check on my aerial census, as well as 4 whooping cranes that have spent the last week in the farm fields south of Austwell.
A very strong cold front hit Aransas about 2200 hours on November 14. Landowner Al Johnson reported the arrival of the territorial pair with twin chicks on the Lamar Peninsula the morning of November 15th! He also saw a 1-chick family that I think is a new arrival. That brings the total at Aransas to 214+32=246 as of noon on November 15th.
With some necessary guesstimates, it looks like 14 territorial pairs have not yet returned to Aransas. Although migration sightings have dried up in the last week, there has been a recent sighting of a pair of whooping cranes in central Kansas, so we know more cranes, hopefully at least 40, are still in migration. I expect more family groups to arrive since there were 41 chicks alive in mid-August and only 32 chicks have made it to Aransas so far. Six pairs have arrived with single chicks as expected (Lobstick, Allyn's Bight, Long Reef, N. Cottonwood, Panther Point, W. Welder) So far, it looks like 3 pairs have arrived without their August chicks (Boat Ramp, Ayres Island, Middle Pond), but 2 families have shown up (Pipeline, South Sundown Bay) with unexpected chicks. The N. Dunham Point pair (K-17) has arrived with only one of the two chicks they had in August. The second pair (Johnson Ranch) that had twin chicks surviving in August arrived the morning of November 15th with both chicks! The oldest male known in the flock (Lobstick, age 30) has once again returned with a juvenile. The territorial pair at Mustang Lake that is visible from the refuge observation tower does not have a chick but have been seen
consistently by refuge visitors. The pair that got into oil a couple fall migrations ago has returned with a chick.
Habitat Use: A prescribed burn (Unit C1) conducted November 7th at the refuge boat ramp held 11 whooping cranes on today's flight. Low numbers of acorns are available for the cranes to eat on the burned area. No cranes were in open bay habitat as expected due to the continued higher than normal tides. Movements of the cranes to and from fresh water made it more difficult to keep track of all the cranes during the census. Extra flying was done to ensure that 29 family groups were present with none counted twice. With bay and marsh salinities measured on November 11th at 30 and 31 parts per thousand, the cranes are forced to make daily flights to fresh water to drink. On today's flight, 22 whoopers were sighted at freshwater dugouts. Seven cranes were on unburned uplands on the Johnson Ranch located on Lamar. Four whooping cranes that have been using the farm fields south of Austwell November 6-13 were added to the flight total. Cedar Bayou, the pass between the Gulf and the bays in whooping crane critical habitat remains silted shut for the second year in a row. Although Hurricane Ike in September brought storm tides in excess of 3 feet, Cedar Bayou did not re-open as the storm turned to the north and hit the upper Texas coast near Galveston.
On the census flight, three different subadult groups of 9, 7 and 6 cranes were located on the refuge and on Matagorda Island. This is about as large as subadult groups ever seem to get at Aransas, at least in recent years. A total of 9 kayaks involved with either nature observation or fishing were seen during the census flight. This is the most I've ever seen, indicative of the growth of this activity along the Texas coast.
Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
P.O. Box 100
Austwell, TX 77950
(361) 286-3559 Ext. 221
fax (361) 286-3722