Flock of endangered birds grows again

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 18, 2017 at 9:42 p.m.
Updated Sept. 19, 2017 at 6 a.m.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KLAUS NIGGE OF THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

PHOTO COURTESY OF KLAUS NIGGE OF THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

An estimated 431 endangered whooping cranes spent last winter on the Texas coast.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released the much-anticipated total Monday after analyzing aerial surveys done over about 153,950 acres. The total includes 50 juveniles.

This is the fifth year in a row the only naturally occurring flock of whooping cranes has increased in size.

In the winter of 2015, biologists estimated there were 329 cranes in the flock.

Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator for the service, explained the 31 percent jump in population was a result of the use of a different type of airplane to conduct the aerial surveys. The service switched from a Cessna 206 to a Quest Kodiak, which Harrell said offered a better view of the cranes.

Dan Alonso doubted the jump in population was due only to switching airplanes, though.

"They've been having good reproductive success. They had 63 birds fledged this year," he said.

Alonso managed the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for 25 years. In December 2012, he became the executive director of the San Antonio Bay Foundation, one of many nonprofits working to get the birds taken off the endangered species list.

As part of that process, the nonprofits have restored water wells in the cranes' habitat and picked up abandoned crab traps.

Specifically, the foundation has raised money to remove water hyacinth and log jams to increase the amount of freshwater flowing into the area.

In the short term, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and these nonprofits will check salinity.

Freshwater ponds might be inundated with saltwater by Hurricane Harvey and not suitable for the cranes.

Harrell said he'll also be reaching out to Sam Houston State University, which has checked on the cranes' and other wildlife's food supply in the marsh before.

"I can tell you that I've seen blue crabs in the marsh environment already after the storm. I've also seen wolf berries already starting to bud," Harrell said.

The cranes are at their breeding grounds in the Wood Buffalo Park in Canada but will begin migrating in October.

Alonso, who was confident in the cranes' adaptability, saw some expressed concern online about the damage the refuge in Austwell sustained.

"What I tell people to remember is that more than half of the whooping cranes now reside off the refuge," he said.

With that in mind, the long-term goal has to do with land.

"One of our down listing goals is to reach 1,000 whooping cranes in this population, and it takes, on average, about 400 acres per adult pair. You can kind of run the numbers and see that we've got a long ways to go in that regard," Harrell said.


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