AUSTIN – With the first pods of iconic, endangered whooping cranes starting to arrive on their wintering grounds along the Texas coast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is reminding Texans to be on the lookout for these impressive birds as they move through the state.
The late migration means whooping cranes are showing up in Texas just as waterfowl and sandhill crane hunting seasons get under way. It is vitally important for sportsmen to review the crane and waterfowl identification guide in the Texas Waterfowl Digest and familiarize themselves with the identifying characteristics between both hunted and protected migratory bird species.
With Hurricane Harvey’s impacts to whooping crane wintering habitat still not fully understood, it is possible that whooping cranes may use “non-traditional” habitat and be in places that the public does not normally expect to see them. So, it is more important than ever to be alert to the presence of this iconic endangered species and report them to Texas Whooper Watch.
Standing at nearly five feet tall, whooping cranes are North America’s tallest bird and each year the flock follows a migratory path from nesting grounds in Woods Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, to primary wintering range on and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas. This trek takes the birds through North and Central Texas and traverses cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Dallas, Waco, Austin and Victoria.
During their migration, whoopers often pause overnight in wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, though it is rare for them to remain in the same place for more than one night. As a federally-protected species, it is illegal to harass or disturb whooping cranes and TPWD encourages the public to be mindful of these brief layovers and to use caution around these birds in order to decrease disturbance to the areas surrounding them.
“It appears it will be another late migration, so we are estimating the first arrivals to the wintering grounds on the Texas coast likely won’t be until early November, with peak migration throughout the state following shortly thereafter,” stated Wade Harrell, United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s whooping crane recovery coordinator.
Several birds may appear similar to whooping cranes, but if you look closely you can tell the difference. The sandhill crane, the whooping crane’s closest relative, is gray in color, not white. Also, sandhill cranes are somewhat smaller, with a wingspan of about five feet. Sandhill cranes occur in flocks of two to hundreds, whereas whooping cranes are most often seen in flocks of two to as many as 10 to 15, although they sometimes migrate with sandhill cranes.
Snow geese and white pelicans have black wing tips like the whooping crane but their profile is much more compact and their wing beats are faster. Here’s a video that details the difference between snow geese and whooping cranes www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvkAYGZnJ4Q&feature=youtu.be.
Last year, the whooping crane population was a record 431 birds, compared to the all-time low of just 15 birds that existed in 1941.
The public can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings to TPWD’s Whooper Watch, a citizen-science based reporting system to track whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas. More information about Whooper Watch, including instructions for reporting sightings, can be found online at www.inaturalist.org/projects/texas-whooper-watch and by downloading the iNaturalist mobile app. These observations help biologists identify new migration and wintering locations and their associated habitats.