Friday, March 4, 2011

Whooping It Up

Since our last post, we have discovered a Mecca for Whooping Crane watching...and only 10 minutes from our RV park! There are locations on St. Charles Bay in Lamar frequented by two families of Whoopers and a number of other cranes and waterfowl. A couple of freshwater ponds and a pasture thoughtfully mowed by the resident cows make it an ideal crane gathering spot. It's good for photography, too, especially if you have a 500mm lens. Unfortunately, I have only a 300mm, so the quality of my images isn't what I would like. These will, however, give you a pretty good idea of what one can see every day.

This family of Whooping Cranes was among the first we saw in Lamar. They claim this pasture as part of their territory and will chase other cranes away if they intrude. The female of the pair is banded on her left leg. I was told that the blue sleeve she wears on her right leg contains a transmitter that beams back information about her location every 7 minutes so scientists can monitor her movements. Their offspring is almost as large as the parents. He (or she) migrated with them from Canada in the fall, and will return with the flock in a few weeks.

Earlier in the week while I was crane-watching, a group of 5 birds landed in the pasture. I think they are probably members of a cohort of young adults that have not yet selected mates. As I (and a number of other photographers and birders) watched, several birds began leaping into the air and flapping their wings. Since their migration north will begin in early April, it means the breeding season for these magnificent birds is just around the corner. It appears that these cranes were "leaping for love" to practice their mating rituals. (The cow grazing in the background seems unimpressed, as do the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks by the pond.)

(Since this post is rather long, I have broken it into two parts. Continue reading for the rest of our Whooping Crane stories and images.)

Whooping it Up...continued

The following day we were fortunate to observe action of another kind...Whooping Crane Wars! The cohort was again in the pasture when the resident family arrived. The big male crane wasted no time in chasing the interlopers away, accenting his charges with much flapping and whooping.

The trespassing group took to the skies, and circled the area a number of times. They are spectacular on the wing, as you can see.

The cohort finally settled a short distance away in St. Charles Bay and began fishing for blue crab, clams and other tasty tidbits.

Unfortunately, they had chosen a section of the bay that is claimed by another family of Whoopers that arrived a few moments later.  They are known as the Johnson Family or the Crane House Family, after the property they claim as their territory.  This family consists of a male and female and their two chicks (now almost yearlings). You can tell the youngsters by the brown feathers on their heads.

The Crane House Family also wasted no time in driving the trespassing cranes from their territory.


Yesterday we again visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and learned that this year a total of 281 cranes have been counted wintering there. Of these, 45 are chicks who should reach maturity in two more years.

We were told that 263 cranes left AWR in April of 2010 on their annual migration to their summer range in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories, Canada.  During the summer, 74 nests and 46 young cranes were spotted at Wood Buffalo NP, so it seems that almost all the young hatched last year made it back to AWR for the winter. That is very important, as the total wild and captive population of endangered Whooping Cranes worldwide is only 575 birds.  We also learned that newly-mated Whooping Crane pairs sometimes take several years to raise a chick successfully, and that they usually raise only one each year. (The Crane House Family is unusual in that they have successfully reared twins.)
We have thoroughly enjoyed observing these magnificent birds, and look forward to seeing them when we return next year.