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Whooping cranes face tough season because of drought

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 28, 2011 at 6:28 a.m.

Whooping cranes are arriving in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for the season.

Most of the whooping cranes have arrived at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for the season, said Denise Ruffino, the refuge's deputy project leader.

The whoopers, expected to be about 300 in number, are facing a difficult season because of the drought.

Salinity levels in the San Antonio Bay are high because of the lack of rain. This has caused many of the birds to move from place to place in the area to get fresh water.

Red tide algae also has been a problem. The toxic algae has been thriving along the Texas coast. The algae accumulates in the fish, oysters and other sea life whooping cranes eat. If the birds eat food laced with the toxic algae they're at risk for sickness, even death. However, there have been no algae-related deaths reported so far, and the recent cold snaps reduce red tide.

A whooping crane was found dead earlier this month. The carcass of a juvenile bird was sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., for disease testing. Ruffino said they believe the bird was killed by a predator.

This flock of whooping cranes has migrated between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge south of Victoria for generations.

The only naturally migrating flock in existence, the birds were in danger of becoming extinct with only 15 birds in the flock in 1941. Since then, their numbers have come back. There were about 290 birds counted last year.

This year, biologists estimate the flock has swelled to about 300 birds - considered a record number. Ruffino said they don't have a confirmed count of the number of birds that have arrived at the refuge this season because the birds have been moving more frequently because of the drought.

According to a news release issued by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a count of the birds will be conducted during a flyover in January.

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