We have all watched the nightly news stories showing the devastation caused by hurricane Harvey in Texas. The news focuses on the effects humans have to deal with and shows destroyed homes and communities trying to put their lives back together.
Naturally, our first thoughts were with our friends and colleagues on the coast, but then our concerns turned toward the Whooping cranes. Luckily, the cranes that winter in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Area were still in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada when hurricane Harvey tore through their winter habitat.
In fact, now, a month after the hurricane, some of those cranes are on their way to their winter home – and with a record number of young-of-year!
The massive storm, with 120 mph winds and rainfall measured in feet, is believed to have eroded marshes and coastlines that are home to dozens of species of birds and marine life, including, of course, Whooping cranes.
The water in and around Aransas is a brackish mix of salt water from the Gulf and fresh water from the Guadalupe River. That delicate balance sustains the blue crab population which, along with the pistol shrimp, clams and wolfberries, make up the primary diet of wintering Whooping cranes.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff have yet to determine if the series of fresh water ponds that the Whooping cranes use for drinking are contaminated. Most of that habitat is extremely resilient. Its vegetation evolved to withstand regular floods, but modern floods bring with them another hazard that wasn’t part of their evolution: plastics, tires, human debris, even barrels of oil have been found in critical crane habitat. The solids can be cleaned up eventually but the liquid contaminants take much longer and are far more expensive to remove.
This critical habitat was spared from the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 but those in the Whooping crane world on the Texas coast have always said, “it’s not a matter of IF there’s a chemical spill but rather WHEN…”, and when that does happen, what then will the cranes’ habitat look like?
Storms of increasing intensity and rising sea levels threaten the critical habitat used by Whooping cranes both in Texas and Louisiana where a reintroduced flock of non-migratory Whooping cranes is now up to over fifty birds.
These are the primary reasons Operation Migration remains committed to building the Eastern Migratory Population. IF/WHEN something happens to the wintering habitat used by the only naturally occurring population, it could threaten the existence of the entire species.
The Eastern flock is an insurance policy – when the Eastern Migratory Population began in 2001, it was intended that the cranes would winter in the salt marshes on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Obviously, the birds had other ideas because they now spread out over much of the east – from southern Indiana and south into the Florida panhandle.
That distribution was once considered a shortcoming of this project but it will likely safeguard the population from any one disastrous event – weather or man-made. Perhaps it makes them more adaptable than the natural flock that congregates in a relatively small area of precious habitat with an uncertain future.
This is why we can’t stop until the Eastern flock reaches a self-sustaining level. We need public support and involvement to get the Whooping crane population back to healthy numbers.
Operation Migration receives no government funds and does its work through the support of people who care about cranes and nature, and who do not want to see this species go extinct in our lifetime.
This year we have costume-reared a cohort of seven young Whooping cranes at White River Marsh in Green Lake County, Wisconsin and they are in the process of releasing themselves. In fact, over the past two weeks they have roosted at a nearby pond along with two older Whooping cranes. Here they are on a recent outing when they met up with two Sandhill cranes.
We are participating in and supporting Parent-Reared releases in Wisconsin – this week we will release an additional six young cranes.
In total, this year, we and our partners will have released nineteen young-of-year Whooping cranes into the Eastern flock and we’ll continue to monitor them until they head south in the coming weeks.
Naturally, our work doesn’t come without cost. We are a small non-profit operating on a shoe-string budget.
Our annual Mile-Maker campaign, which ran in conjunction with the ultralight-guided migration flights, generated over $200,000 each year. This is funding we lost when the Fish and Wildlife Service halted those flights.
We still have work to do and we’re asking you to help with a financial contribution. We’re not giving up on the Eastern Population and we hope you’ve not given up on us!
Will you help us safeguard this incredible species? Click here to help.
Or call our office at: 800-675-2618