CORPUS CHRISTI – Local birders, anglers and residents of Rockport began seeing adult whooping cranes in the Coastal Bend around mid-September, about a month earlier than usual.

Four have been spotted so far locally, but no others have been confirmed in Texas or south of the Dakotas, according to wildlife officials. Part of the local anticipation surrounding the arrival of the iconic endangered birds involves whether the world’s only wild population of whooping cranes has grown since last year’s estimate. U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 2013 estimated the flock at 305 birds, more or less.

This question likely will not be answered for months. In previous years the whooper migration to Texas has stretched into January.

Nobody knows for sure how many cranes may have perished along their 2,500-mile flight to Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, where a reported 82 pairs nested during spring. From those nests, officials at Canada park estimated in August that about 40 percent or 32 chicks survived to fledge. Twenty-eight chicks came from 28 nests, while two nesting pairs had two chicks survive.

Again, nobody knows how many of those birds will live to see the flock’s winter home in and around the Aransas refuge north of Rockport.

“I wish more had survived,” said Chester McConnel with the nonprofit group Friends of the Wild Whoopers. “But I guess that’s about normal. How many will get to the Aransas refuge is another story.”

That the flock has survived at all is a remarkable story. Their numbers sunk to about 15 in 1941 after years of habitat destruction. The Aransas flock remains the only wild migrating population of whooping cranes, though captive populations and their offspring exists in Texas and other states.

In recent years not all of the wild flock made it to the refuge. When drought conditions have existed in South Texas, some of the birds stop at Granger Lake northeast of Austin or near El Campo. As the flock grows, sub-adult cranes are expected to venture into more and more areas outside the refuge, into the barrier islands of the Coastal Bend and beyond, according to Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator at the Aransas refuge.

Cranes making their way to Texas typically travel in family groups or small groups of sub-adults, urged along the way by cold fronts and the availability of food, Harrell said. Meanwhile the refuge staff has been preparing habitat for the flock’s arrival. This includes prescribed burns, mowing around watering holes for better predator avoidance and to improve feeding areas and enhancing freshwater wells to provide drinking water and to maintain proper salinity in the marshes.

Harrell said the refuge is wetter than it has been in several years, thanks to receiving more than 10 inches of rain since September. This has filled watering holes and freshened up the marsh somewhat, he said. And recent high tides may have pushed blue crabs into the marsh, making them more available for the cranes, said Liz Smith, a whooping crane conservation biologist with the International Crane Foundation.

The relative saltiness of the estuary that supports the cranes and their food sources was at the center of a high-profile federal lawsuit filed in 2010 against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. A group of conservationists, birders, businesses and communities calling themselves The Aransas Project accused water regulators of not providing cranes their due from the river during the 2008-09 drought, thereby violating the Endangered Species Act.

A record 23 whooping cranes died that season. In 2013, Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack, in a 124-page opinion, upheld the group’s claim that the state was at least partially to blame for the die-off. Later, a federal appellate court reserved her ruling, saying the cranes did indeed die from a lack of river inflow into the marshes of San Antonio Bay, but that the river authority and state could not have foreseen the outcome.

by: David Sikes, Caller Times Newspaper