orangeleader.com (Orange, Texas)

State News

November 16, 2009

Fewer whooping cranes expected to winter in Texas

ARANSAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Texas (AP) — As the first of the areas beloved, endangered whooping cranes make their annual descent into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, its likely there will be fewer of the tourist draws to whoop and holler over.

The flock is the only naturally occurring whooping crane population in the world. Every fall it migrates south to the refuge north of Rockport with youngsters in tow. They stay through early spring before heading back to Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where they nest and raise babies.

If early indicators hold true, the arriving population will be smaller this season for the first time in seven years. The best case population scenario looks to be 247 adult birds, down from the 270 that arrived last year, according to statistics from the refuge.

Any decline is a concern because the birds are among the most endangered species, said Vicki Muller, a specialist at the wildlife refuge.

The flock population, which usually grows by half a dozen every year, fell by 23 in South Texas last winter as the result of food and freshwater shortages brought on by the extended drought.

This year whoopers hatched only 52 chicks in Canada — a six-year low — and only 22 survived. The youngsters wont be counted as part of the overall population until they make it to the refuge for the first time from Canada, Muller said.

So far about 24 of the 5 1/2-foot tall white birds and two chicks have landed at the refuge, Muller said. The rest of the flock is expected by December.

Its too early to tell how many will make it, because of the pitfalls for traveling cranes such as power lines and wind turbines, Muller said. A substantial number are en route and were spotted earlier this month in Kansas, where birders saw as many as 30 headed south one day, Muller said.

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