First whooping crane of the season arrives at refuge

By by Dianna Wray
Oct. 21, 2010 at 5:21 a.m.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Brad Strobel was out on the east shore of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday afternoon when he heard the squawk of a whooping crane.

He and his wife, Kerry, looked around, ears perked, listening sharply, but there were no cranes to be spotted.

However, on Thursday, their suspicions were confirmed. The first whooping crane of the season was spotted.

"We all went and high-fived each other," said Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services whooping crane coordinator. "This is what we get excited about."

The rest of the whooping cranes that have wintered in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for generations are still in Canada, but they'll be here soon, Stehn said.

This flock of cranes, the only natural flock in existence, summers in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada. When the weather turns cold, they point their beaks south and head for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The birds travel alone or in small groups from Canada. They usually begin arriving at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge around Oct. 16.

This year, the weather has stayed unseasonably warm up north, Stehn said, but the first cold snap will send the rest of the birds south, back to the wildlife refuge the flock has wintered at since the Ice Ages.

In the meantime, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge biologists have been inspecting their habitat to see what kind of conditions will greet the birds this year.

Biologists waded out to the marshes to check on the crane food supply and the salination level of the marshes.

Two years ago, a drought caused salination levels - the level of salt in the water - in the marshes to rise, affecting the cranes' food and water supply, but everything looks good this year, Stehn said.

After a season of heavy rain, the crab count is the highest it has ever been, Strobel said. The wolfberry count is also good, and the salination level is low enough that the cranes will be able to drink from the marshes and shouldn't have to wander out of their usual habitat to search for food.

"Whatever number of cranes make it here, they're going to do well," Stehn said.

There also will be a record number of cranes in the flock this year.

The cranes had a successful summer nesting in Canada, with 74 nests and 46 fledglings recorded in August, Stehn said.

There were 263 birds in the flock when they migrated north last spring. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge biologists expect 285 to 290 cranes to arrive in the flock this year, the biggest flock they've ever had, Stehn said.

The arrival of the first crane also marks the beginning of the busy season at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The federal refuge gets about 70,000 visitors a year, and most of them come to see the cranes, Stehn said.

Stehn said most of the cranes are expected to arrive by the second week of November, though arrivals may continue well into December.

Stehn said he's glad to see the cranes arrive. They're the reason he does his job.

"It's great. I'm so excited," Stehn said.



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