Off to see the whoopers (hopefully)

I am out of town.  I won’t respond to comments, post new content, visit other blogs, or even check e-mail.  I don’t expect to return until Sunday or Monday.

If you arrived here ready to submit something for the next “I and the Bird” or the next “Festival of the Trees” and you don’t already have my e-mail address, please use the contact form or send your submission to jason@this domain (‘this domain’ obviously being ‘’).

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And where am I going?  I intend to race my chariot to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas located along the southern Texas coast.  Why?  I hope to see some whooping cranes; more specifically, I hope to see members of the only natural flock of whooping cranes left on the planet.  Their numbers remain critically low and their survival hangs on the edge of extinction where it has been for three quarters of a century: only 15 surviving birds were alive in 1941.

This year?  About 250 birds survive in the last wild flock, though additional cranes live in raise-and-release programs along the east coast of North America where they are trained to migrate by ultralight aircraft.  Both the last remaining wild flock and the released flock, along with a non-migratory flock, number fewer than 500 birds in toto.  That makes the natural flock the largest group and the best hope for the species.

I have never before seen a whooping crane.  Not one in the wild and in the flesh, I should say.  That Texas offers the species its best hope in winter shames me for the fact that I never have traveled to see them—or at least traveled so I could try to see them.  This year is different.  And even if I walk away without photos, being there at this critical juncture means more than paying lip service to hope.

Even as Canada and the United States work diligently to bring the cranes back from the edge, I’m sad to report (PDF) somewhere in the US is a heartless, cruel, inhumane cretin who shot and killed a whooping crane in Indiana, then left the carcass on the roadside:

Wildlife law enforcement agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are investigating the shooting of an endangered whooping crane near the town of Cayuga in central Vermillion County, Indiana.

The crane was shot sometime between Saturday, Nov. 28, when it was observed by an International Crane Foundation staff member, and Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009, when an ICF volunteer found the carcass along West County Road 310 North, just west of North County Road 225 West.

The crane was identified by a leg band, and determined to be the seven-year old mother of “Wild-1,” the only whooping crane chick successfully hatched (in 2006) and migrated from captivity.

One simply cannot overestimate the cruelty and stupidity of humans.  Beginning with our first steps atop the primate lineage, we have caused extinctions at a rate 100-1000 times what we have seen in the recent fossil record.  We are living in the next great death, the Holocene extinction, a mass extinction directly tied to humans (so it more accurately should be called the ‘anthropocene extinction’).  Thanks entirely to us, at least one species of plant or animal becomes extinct every 20 minutes.  At that rate, 20% of all living species could be extinct by 2028 and at least half of all species could be extinct by 2100.  And those figures assume our rate of habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, sport killing, resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions don’t increase at unforeseen rates.

So why not shoot one of the last whooping cranes on the planet, a member of a species we tried to wipe out 75 years ago and have struggled to save ever since.  I mean, save us all that hard work and shoot a crane today.  I say that facetiously, of course, with not too small a dose of sarcasm.  If the shooter is caught, they need to have the maximum penalties applied from both the state and federal levels.

In June 2009 I reported on the catastrophic season experienced by whooping cranes in Texas due to lack of fresh water:

“…[W]ildlife die-offs of whooping cranes and deer have been reported.”  This past winter “the only migrating whooping-crane flock that exists in the wild lost 23 of its 270 members to hunger and disease brought on by the dry weather, said Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping-crane coordinator.”  And that loss came despite “the fact that the cranes’ diet was supplemented for the first time in 60 years…”

Historically only one crane in this flock has died each year, so having 23 die in one year crippled the recovery effort for this species, the tallest of all North American birds.  Recent indications are that this year keeps the cranes even with their numbers last year.  From the most recent USFWS census:

The second aerial census of the 2009-10 whooping crane season was conducted 02 December 2009 in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas with [US Fish and Wildlife Service] observer Tom Stehn. Visibility was very good for most of the flight, but mid-day winds gusting to 25 from the northwest made for a bumpy ride and made the task of finding cranes more difficult. Sighted were 191 adults and 17 juveniles = 208 total. This was an increase of 117 cranes since the last flight conducted November 12th. I am expecting up to 22 juveniles based on August fledging surveys done on the nesting grounds by [Canadian Wildlife Service]. With that number of juvenile produced, the flock may experience a break-even year with a flock total around 247 expected.

Idiotic shooters aside, the past week has seen other extraordinary news about the whooping cranes, most especially a step taken by “an alliance of Gulf Coast environmental and business groups, led by a prominent South Texas family,” a step aimed at ensuring the whooping cranes do not pass into oblivion without a fight.  The group, known as the Aransas Project, has filed suit against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state environmental agency responsible for regulating use of river water.  The Austin American-Statesman reports:

The [Aransas Project] claims that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which authorizes the use of river water around the state, has allowed too much fresh water to be diverted from the Guadalupe River before it reaches the bays where the whooping cranes winter. As a result, according to the alliance, saltwater levels in the bays have increased, driving away or diminishing the number of blue crabs and wolfberries available for the whooping cranes to eat.

Which matches what I reported in June:

[Freshwater marshes] inundated by Hurricane Ike are not being flushed of salt water.  That lack of flushing is killing plants and damaging soil chemistry.

I went on to show how the lack of fresh water threatened much of the wildlife along the coast, from ducks to deer to oysters to plants, and how it also meant the environment could no longer “support the microorganisms and insects that form the base of the food chain.”  The Aransas Project appears ready and willing to address those issues, though the impetus will be on them to prove that development along the coast or drought conditions or other outlying factors are not to blame for the horrific death toll last year.

But before I blather on ad nauseam (too late, I know), allow me to direct your attention to another article regarding the lawsuit by the Aransas Project.  This article comes from the Associated Press.  Please, before you do anything else today, take a minute to read this: Aransas Project to sue over whooping crane deaths.

One thought on “Off to see the whoopers (hopefully)”

  1. Since the weather sucks at the moment (drizzle and fog with some coastal flooding from strong onshore winds), I thought I’d take advantage of the hotel’s free high-speed internet access to post this quick update from yesterday’s USFWS whooping crane survey:

    The third aerial census of the 2009-10 whooping crane season was conducted December 10, 2009 in a Cessna 210 piloted by Gary Ritchey of Air Transit Solutions of Castroville, Texas with USFWS observer Tom Stehn. Sighted on the flight were 211 adults and 19 juveniles = 230 total. This was an increase of 20 cranes since the previous flight conducted December 2nd. With 230 at Aransas and 8 known to still be in migration, currently 238 whooping cranes can be accounted for. I am expecting up to 22 juveniles based on August fledging surveys done on the nesting grounds by CWS. With that number of juvenile produced, the flock may experience a break-even year with a flock total around 247 expected.

    Migration Update: Cold fronts that reached Aransas on December 4th and 9th helped 20 additional cranes complete their 2,400-mile long migration. Additional cranes are known to still be in migration. Four were present at Quivira NWR on December 7th even though the marshes were about 90% frozen. Four were recently sighted west of Mad Island Preserve in Matagorda County Texas about 40 miles northeast of Aransas. Two cranes that have been staying east of Tivoli about 15 miles north of Aransas were located on today’s flight in the Hynes Bay Unit of the Guadalupe Delta Wildlife Management Area operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

    Crane Identities: We are not sure if the Lobstick pair has returned this fall. However, 2 cranes that may have been the Lobsticks were sighted on the Lobstick territory on December 9 and 10. If present, the Lobstick male is 31 years old.

    Habitat Use: Tides measured at the refuge boat ramp were high (2.7 feet). Salinities currently at 8 parts per thousand in San Antonio Bay have dropped noticeably in November and December so that the cranes are drinking directly from the marsh and have stopped making flights to fresh water dugouts. An extremely heavy rain event on November 20th with some coastal areas getting up to 16 inches has filled refuge dugouts and swales and flooded portions of the uplands on San Jose Island and Welder Flats. Conditions are very wet. Since that rain event, some blue crabs seem to have moved into the marshes, and some cranes have recently been observed catching blue crabs 2-3 inches in size. However, 65 cranes on today’s flight were sighted on uplands. These cranes were mostly foraging on patches of bare ground, some flooded and some dry. This behavior is indicative of a less than optimal food situation for the cranes. Although some wolfberry flowers are still present in the marshes, few berries are present and have stopped making up a significant part of the crane diet. An additional 5 cranes on today’s flight were on a shell road in the uplands. No cranes were at game feeders or in open bay habitat, and there are currently no prescribed burns in the crane area. The largest group size observed was 8 birds seen on the uplands on San Jose accompanied by sandhill cranes. More black mangrove was noted on Ayes and Roddy islands.

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