Fewer whoopers flying this season

Hopes for a record season for the whooping cranes at their wintering grounds are waning as the days go by and more birds fail to appear.

In October, Dan Alonso, manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, predicted this would be a record-breaking season for the flock, with their numbers swelling to more than 300 birds.

Despite the estimate, only 193 birds have been counted in the refuge. Adding 16 birds known to be wintering between here and the flock's summer home in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada, the total of birds comes to 209, well below estimates from the beginning of the season, according to a news release from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

One juvenile bird was believed killed in December. Alonso said they believed the bird was killed by a predator, and that death had no relation to the drought.

Last week, another juvenile bird was found dead. The cause of death for the bird was inconclusive, Alonso said. The carcass was sent to a lab for more testing.

In the wake of a drought that has made freshwater harder to come by and has been hard on the whoopers' food supply, the birds are more spread out in their feeding grounds, scientists believe. This makes it more difficult to count the birds when conducting their aerial surveys. There are probably more birds in the area than counted, Alonso said.

"You're in a plane flying over. You can't see all of them. It's human error that you miss some," Alonso said.

The drought has caused 5 percent of the birds to get their water from man-made freshwater sources such as stock ponds and windmills, according to the news release.

Refuge personnel do not plan to feed the birds, but they burned more than 8,000 acres to help the whooping crane habitat.

Biologists reported that whooping cranes were seen eating roasted acorns after the burn.

Refuge officials plan to burn more than 6,000 more acres, according to the release.

Red tide algae has posed an additional threat to the birds. The toxic bloom kills fish, and would kill a whooping crane if the bird ate it.

Cold weather and rain have pushed the red tide out of the bays in recent days, but it put more pressure on the birds in what had already promised to be a difficult season.

Despite the strain, Alonso said he was confident in the flock's ability to deal with adverse conditions.

"They're having to work a little harder for the food they do find, but they're quite adaptable," he said.