Did you know that in 1941 there were only 15 whooping cranes left in the world? 15! It’s believed that roughly 1400 whooping cranes existed in 1860. Their population declined because of hunting and habitat loss which nearly pushed this beautiful, over-sized bird to extinction. Today, the wild flock has increased to a little over 300 – a frail representation of their potential population.
Turning 15 birds into 300 in almost a century was no easy task. Against all odds, conservationists struggled to bring this species back from the brink, and in some cases, though conservation efforts were inspired, they failed. The only successful whooping crane flock winters in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In spring, they migrate north, nesting in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border of Alberta and Northwest Territories in Canada. This flock of whooping cranes is the only naturally occurring wild population in the world.
Most bird species have a variety of habitats for both wintering and breeding grounds which increase their chances of survival if something were to happen to one of their natural habitats (i.e. disease, human impact, bad weather, etc.). Whooping cranes, however, only have the one wintering ground. If something were to devastate that location, a significant number of what’s remaining of our whooping crane population could be wiped out.
On August 25, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, whooping cranes’ only natural wintering ground, suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm at the time of landfall.
Refuge staff discovered an operational camera on the site, which recorded conditions before, during, and after the storm. The picture above shows the area before the hurricane hit. If you look closely in the background, you can see oak trees with leaves.
The photo above captures the driving rain and damaging winds of Hurricane Harvey as it comes ashore.
In the above “after” photo, you can see trees and bushes stripped of their leaves. More disturbing is the amount of salt water that has inundated the freshwater ponds in the area.
High levels of salinity could be detrimental to the whooping cranes’ winter return taking place there in just a few short weeks. Ecologists, biologists, and Refuge employees are working overtime to pump fresh water back into the ponds before the migrants arrive. Further research and monitoring of this unique and critical situation will shed light on the future of one of the world’s most endangered species.
As soon as I know more, I’ll report back.
In the meantime, you can track their migration here.
Source and photo credits: International Crane Foundation