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.
Whoopers started late on winter migration and began showing up in the Coastal Bend a couple of weeks later than their normal mid-October arrival.
The tardiness could be due to warmer than normal weather in Canada, Muller said.
“Another thought is that a lot of them starved here last year, and they are not in that big of a hurry to come down,” she said. “We dont know exactly.”
The whoopers face a lean food supply again. Their prime food sources — blue crabs and wolfberries — have yet to rebound from the drought despite recent rainfall, surveys have shown, Muller said.
“So far it is looking dismal,” she said.
The salinity remains high in area waterways where whoopers forage. Crabs dont do well in hyper-saline conditions.
“It is slowly getting better, but we have not seen enough change for the crabs to start breeding,” Muller said. “We hope if the rain continues that the conditions will improve.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will offer supplemental corn if the whooping crane food supplies remain scarce.
“We are hopeful that the continued rain will decline the salinity level enough for the crabs to come back,” Muller said. “We hope to have a successful year, and if need be, we will supplement the food.”