Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

July 26, 2012

Short count of whooping cranes

Filed under: Birds — Freddie Keel @ 6:54 am

SAN ANTONIO – The first official whooping crane count of the year was released Thursday and brought up more questions than answers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted a total of 193 birds on three flights in January over the endangered species’ wintering grounds around San Antonio Bay.

An additional 16 birds were counted outside of the normal wintering grounds as far away as Nebraska.

The low number and wide distribution are a concern because at the start of the season crane experts estimated as many as 300 birds would be wintering on  the coast.

Officials at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge said they do not believe 91 birds have died, as they have collected only two carcasses. But the drought is drastically changing the birds’ habits.

Tallest U.S. bird

At 5 feet tall with white plumage, except for black tips on their wings and a crow of red skin, the tallest birds in North America are relatively easy to count in normal rainfall years when they stay along the shoreline.

“But this year we know the birds are moving around much more, so it is not as easy to determine the count,” said Vicki Muller, a wildlife specialist at the refuge.

The lack of rain and river inflow at the estuaries the birds depend on has caused a shortage of potable water and reduce the number of blue crabs, their preferred food.

Now the normally fiercely territorial birds are leaving the edges of the bays and estuaries to fly inland looking for food, according to the report.

They’re spread out

While most of the birds appear to be congregating near the coast at water holes and burned areas where they can find acorns, small mammals, reptiles and insects to eat, some are as far away as Granger Lake, northeast of Austin, and along the Platte River in Nebraska.

“They have pretty much abandoned their territories,” said Capt. Tommy Moore who leads crane boat tours.

In late November, Moore’s tours would pass up to 30 birds along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Now, he said, he sees three adult pairs and their young.

The refuge plans another count this month and again in March.

The count is significant because a federal judge is weighing arguments about whether Texas is doing enough to assure freshwater inflows for the federally protected birds.

During the drought of 2009 when river flows were minimal, the refuge reported at least 23 cranes died. It was the largest die-off of whooping cranes ever recorded and became the basis of the lawsuit against Texas.

If the judge rules Texas is not doing enough, water in the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers could be reallocated. That would directly affect large industrial water users.

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