AUSTIN (KXAN) – Whooping cranes have made their return to Texas, the Texas Parks Wildlife Department said Monday.
On Nov. 1, the first pair of whooping cranes of the year were seen flying toward the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the southwest side of San Antonio Bay, according to TPWD.
The cranes arrived 10 days later than 2022, but well within the typical arrival window, Kevin McAbee, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator, said in the TPWD release.
“It is always exciting when the first Whooping Cranes complete their fall migration and arrive in Texas,” McAbee said. “Flying during the day and resting at night, they have worked hard to reach their winter home in coastal Texas.”
During their migration, TPWD said whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields where they can roost and feed. The birds often pass large urban centers including Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin. Though whooping cranes rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, TPWD said it is important that the birds are not disturbed or harassed at these stopovers. As a federally protected species, it is illegal to disturb or harass these birds.
“Whooping cranes have spent all summer nesting and raising chicks in and around Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada,” said McAbee. “Now they are completing the approximately 2,500-mile journey south to their wintering grounds in Texas, a migration that can take up to 50 days.”
The conditions whooping cranes experienced in their summer nesting area in Canada are relatively similar to what they will find when they reach coastal wintering grounds, TPWD said. Drought and wildfire conditions through the summer degraded habitat quality, with thick smoke and dry wetlands throughout the nesting and rearing period.
“Luckily, most whooping cranes and nests were not directly impacted by fires,” McAbee said. “While these conditions may reduce the number of juvenile cranes that will arrive in Texas this year, we expect overall numbers to be similar to the estimated 540 whooping cranes that inhabited coastal Texas last year.”
Drought conditions are something the birds will have to contend with in their winter habitat, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Bay salinities are high following a dry summer, TPWD said, causing whooping cranes to be more likely to use freshwater habitats and new areas, some of which are more inland than previous years.
Conservations are concerned about the increasingly common use of inland areas by whooping cranes because TPWD said these areas overlap with sandhill crane and other waterfowl habitats as well as hunting seasons.
The agency urged hunters to take extra caution and be sure of bird species before taking a shot. Just because hunters are away from the Texas coast, doesn’t mean the bird in question is not a whooping crane. Cases of mistaken identity can happen, something that can be detrimental to the tallest and rarest species of bird in North America.
TPWD said whooping cranes are sometimes found in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are gray and slightly smaller. Whooping cranes have all-white body plumage and black wingtips and can resemble snow geese, which are much smaller and have faster wing beats. The TPWD You Tube Channel has a video detailing differences between snow geese and whooping cranes.
According to TPWD, several other non-game species are similar to the whooping crane in appearance such as wood storks, American white pelicans, great egrets and others.
Texas Parks and Wildlife said it tracks whooping crane migration and wintering locations throughout Texas through reports from the public via a science-based reporting system called the Texas Nature Trackers project Texas Whooper Watch and iNaturalist mobile app.
According to TPWD, the greatest threats to whooping cranes are man-made, which include power lines, illegal hunting and habitat loss. This species of bird has been federally listed as endangered since June 1970.