AUSTIN — Endangered whooping cranes have begun their annual 2,400-mile fall migration from Canada to Texas, arriving early at San Jose Island this year.

The first bird was reported at the island over the weekend, though most of the whooping crane population remains north of the state. Biologists expect them to join the early arrivals in late October or early November. The whoopers will embark on their journey back to Canada next March.

To track the movement of these endangered birds across the state, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department developed the Texas Whooper Watch program (http://tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes/), a citizen science initiative that relies on volunteers to report whooping crane sightings. Because the growing flock has begun to explore other wintering areas away from traditional areas, the program helps the agency learn more about whooping cranes and their winter habitats across the state.

Since recovering from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s to 308 birds today, whooping cranes have wintered on the Texas coast in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Recently, however, several groups of whooping cranes have expanded their wintering grounds to include other coastal areas and some inland sites.

Whooping cranes, which are North America’s tallest bird at nearly five feet tall, follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Dallas, Waco, Austin and Victoria. During migration, they often pause overnight in wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but they seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting—71 percent of all observations—is fewer than three birds, but last year Texas had multiple sightings of larger groups, including one of 19 birds. Whooping cranes can also be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of smaller, darker sandhill cranes.

Citizens can help track whooping cranes by reporting sightings and preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations. Sightings can be reported to whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999). Observers should especially note whether the cranes have colored bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” may also contact TPWD at whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999).

Additional information, including photos of whooping crane look-alike species, can be found at http://tpwd.texas.gov/whoopingcranes/ and at http://www.whoopingcrane.com/report-a-sighting/.

Source: Texas Parks & Wildlife