Wintering Whooping Crane Update, September 15, 2015 Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
Fall migration has begun and we are starting to get some reports of whooping cranes moving south out of their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). We usually expect to see the first whooping cranes arrive at Aransas NWR in early October. The whooping crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to about 50 days to complete. Having high quality habitat to stop and rest along this migration is critical to maintaining and growing the whooping crane population. Last fall, I outlined some of the flight characteristics of whooping cranes in migration here. This fall, let’s take some time to consider the type of conserved habitats that whooping cranes have available to them to stop, rest and refuel along their journey south.
The first province that whooping cranes enter after leaving WBNP is Saskatchewan, or the “Canadian Prairie Province” (a few go through Alberta). Known for its expansive prairie wetlands, whooping cranes spend up to 2 weeks in Central and Southern Saskatchewan “staging” before continuing south. While staging, Whooping cranes join a wide variety of other waterfowl species feeding on waste grains in recently harvested fields and resting in the abundant wetlands.
Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area in southern is administered by the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada (federal) and has a long history of conservation. The northern portion of the lake was established as the first federal bird sanctuary in North America in 1887. Last Mountain Lake is a natural, highly productive glaciated lake formed 11,000 years ago and is the heart of this refuge. The Lake is surrounded by smaller, shallow wetlands that are ideal for used by whooping cranes and other migrating birds.
As whooping cranes cross the international border on their southern migration, a few enter extreme northwestern Montana, but most enter North Dakota, the 4
th least populous state in the United States. Much like Saskatchewan, North Dakota’s productive prairie pothole region provides key habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species.
Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1932 by President Herbert Hoover to provide sanctuary and habitat for migratory birds that use the Central Flyway migration corridor. The refuge contains 22,300 acres. The dominant habitat feature is a 16,000 acre natural, alkaline lake created within the prairie landscape during the most recent ice age. Long Lake and its surrounding wetlands and native prairies provides stopover habitat for large numbers of migrating sandhill cranes, shorebirds, ducks, geese, swans, and pelicans along with receiving occasional whooping crane use.
Once whooping cranes enter South Dakota, they have reached the halfway point in fall migration. A state perhaps best known for Mount Rushmore and its surrounding Black Hills in the western portion of the state also contains a considerable number of high quality whooping crane stopover habitats in its extensive prairie and wetland habitats.
Huron Wetland Management District, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, lies in eastern South Dakota and consists of 62 Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), totaling 17,574 fee owned acres.
Glaciers that once covered the landscape formed the many lakes and wetlands and rivers in the District. A large number of conservation easements held by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in South Dakota on private lands throughout the Huron WMD also serve as stopover habitat for whooping cranes and other migrating birds. Although waterfowl production areas, easements, and National Wildlife Refuges account for less than 2 percent of the landscape in the U.S. prairie pothole region, they are responsible for producing nearly 23 percent of this area’s waterfowl.
Nebraska Conservation of migration stopover habitat for whooping cranes along the Platte River in Central Nebraska has a long history. In 1978, the stretch of the Platte River from Lexington to Denman, Nebraska was designated as the northernmost critical habitat for endangered whooping cranes in the United States.
A wide variety of partners has worked over the years to conserve habitat along this stretch of the Platte River. Key habitat acquisitions include Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon and several river tracts owned and managed by the Crane Trust and Platte River Recovery Implementation Program between Gibbon and Grand Island. Several of these sites have crane viewing blinds available to the public to view migrating sandhill and whooping cranes, particularly during spring migration.
The Sunflower state hosts designated critical habitat for whooping cranes around 2 well-known conservation areas in the Central part of the state, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and nearby Cheyenne Bottoms.
Quivira NWR was established in 1955 and is 22,135 acres of inland salt marsh habitat surrounded by native mixed-grass sand prairie. Cheyenne Bottoms is considered the largest wetland in the United States, covering about 41,000. Portions of Cheyenne Bottoms is owned and managed by Kansas Parks & Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy. If you are interested in visiting these areas in Kansas, I would recommend stopping at the Kansas Wetlands Education Area to start.
The Sooner state hosts one of the most frequently used fall whooping crane stopover sites at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1930 as a refuge and breeding ground for birds and for use as a sanctuary for migrating birds, the Refuge is 32,197 acres.
The 11,200 acres shallow salt lake at the heart of the Refuge is designated as the largest saline flat of its type in the central lowlands of North America. The lake and Refuge provides nesting habitat for endangered interior least terns and threatened western snowy plovers in addition to its role in whooping crane recovery efforts.
Even though Texas is the largest state in the continental U.S., fall whooping crane migration is over 75% complete once they reach our northern boundary. Stopover use in Texas is not as frequent as in the states discussed earlier, perhaps because whoopers are ready to make it to their final destination here at Aransas NWR and surrounding coastal marshes.
Granger Lake, a man-made reservoir in Central Texas, is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. While this public lands area is not primarily managed for wildlife habitat, it has seen both migration stopover use and more recently wintering use by whooping cranes. This shallow reservoir, completed in 1980, provides local flood control and outdoor recreation activities.
If you have enjoyed this short overview of whooping crane migration habitat, I would encourage you to explore the links provided and consider visiting a few of these conservation areas in person. Many offer a variety of activities to enjoy such as fishing, hunting, birdwatching and camping. Also consider purchasing a federal waterfowl stamp this year even if you aren’t a waterfowl hunter. Many of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lands that are important for migrating whooping cranes, including portions of Aransas NWR, were purchased with waterfowl stamp funds! For those that have an interest in the science of whooping crane migration, keep your eyes out for a publication from the U.S. Geological Survey on whooping crane stopover site use coming out very soon. This will be the first of hopefully many publications that provides information that we have gleaned from the ongoing telemetry study. Texas Whooper Watch Be sure to report any Texas migration sightings via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: (512) 389-TXWWW (8999).