Audubon of Kansas
Endangered Whooping Cranes Visit Kansas Each Spring,
Five Observed Recently Near Manhattan,
Ten at Once at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge Near Stafford

We have sent this news release out to the media in Kansas to raise awareness of Whooping Crane protection and conservation needs.  Please feel free to share it with others, and encourage folks who are interested in wildlife to subscribe to this Audubon of Kansas eNews.  Although the endangered Black-footed Footed Ferret has received a great deal of our focus in recent years, we try not to neglect any important wildlife conservation needs.

Flying Whooping Cranes

Manhattan, KS - This past week, five whooping cranes were observed along the Kansas River a few miles east of Manhattan near the village of Zeandale.  The birds roosted at night on sandbar islands in the middle of the river or in shallow waters surrounding them, a strategy important to protect them from coyotes and other predators.  During the day they flew out to corn stubble fields to search for food.  Most of the time they fed in the middle of a section of agricultural fields. 
They could be viewed from public roads at a distance of 200 to 800 yards.  That distance was essential to prevent disturbance of the birds.  Ron Klataske, Executive Director of Audubon of Kansas, said he was initially concerned that overzealous photographers would try to get closer, but it appears that visitors observed from Kaw Road and did not walk out into the private property or trek along the riverbank.  Human disturbance, especially near their night roosting areas on river sandbars and in small wetlands, can stress these wary birds and deprive them of the rest and feeding opportunities they need to fuel their strenuous migration.  They nest in and near the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada.
This is the second time in recent years that whooping cranes have been confirmed using the Kansas River for night roosting.  On this most recent occasion they were known to have stayed at least a week, leaving on the morning of April 15.  They took advantage of warm temperatures to generate thermals combined with southeast winds.
The most common stopover areas in Kansas include Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Stafford and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Areas near Great Bend in central Kansas.  Ten whoopers were observed at the Quivira refuge on April 10, the largest number observed in the state so far this spring.  Smaller numbers have been reported there and at other locations during the past week.  Fortunately, the Quivira refuge offers an expanse of wetlands where the birds can feed, loaf and roost without human disturbance, and roads at a distance where viewers can often see the birds with binoculars and scopes.
Whooping cranes were approaching extinction in 1941 when there were only 15 birds remaining in this population.  Protection and conservation efforts devoted to critical habitat have allowed this flock to increase substantially.  With drastic losses during last year's migrations north and south and/or on 2008 summering areas, the population stood at 270 whoopers in early winter, including 22 juveniles from last year's hatch.
According to Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2008-09 represented the worst winter on record for the last remaining wild flock of whooping cranes.  Stehn reported, "...Total winter mortality is estimated at 7 adults and 16 chicks, totaling 23 whooping cranes, a loss of 7.8% of the flock that was a record 270 in the fall."  When added to 34 birds that left Texas in spring 2008 and failed to return in 2009, over 20% of the flock was lost during the last year.
Whooping CranesStehn attributes the winter losses to poor habitat conditions on the wintering grounds, located on the middle Texas coast near Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges.  Low rainfall in 2008 resulted in saltier bays and fewer blue crabs, the primary food source for wintering whoopers.  In addition, according to Stehn, whoopers are further stressed when cranes must leave the salt marshes to fly inland in search of fresh water.  Two emaciated whooping crane carcasses were found, and staff at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge even took the unusual step of providing supplemental feeding over the winter in addition to burning upland areas to make acorns more available.
Although they generally migrate at a height of 500 to 6,000 feet above ground, they are in greatest danger at lower elevations when flying to and from wetlands and river roosting areas.  Forty-six whooping cranes have been confirmed as killed in collisions with power lines since 1956.  An unknown number have been killed by irresponsible hunters--shooters who do not deserve the title of sportsmen.  Two were shot and killed in fields near the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas in 2004.  A third bird in the flock was apparently injured, appeared to be unable to fly from the marsh for days and disappeared.   The foreseeable prospect of tens of thousands of 400-foot high commercial windpower turbines on millions of acres in the Great Plains presents a potential hazard for these and other birds, especially if carelessly sited in major flyway areas and near wetland and river roosting areas.
Whoopers, the tallest bird in North America, are entirely white except for a small patch of black feathers and red skin on the face and black wing tips that are seen only in flight or when their wings are stretched-as when they are dancing in courtship.  During spring migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one or a few nights.  Weather conditions often stall their migration.  They usually migrate in small family groups of 2 to 6 birds, but may share habitats with the smaller, more abundant and widespread Sandhill Crane.
Persons who observe whoopers should avoid approaching or disturbing them.  It is requested that they call federal or state wildlife officials to report sittings, or wildlife organizations.  Audubon of Kansas can be contacted at 785-537-4585.
Other birds that are sometimes mistaken for whooping cranes include sandhill cranes, white pelicans, egrets and even snow geese.  Whooping cranes stand four feet high and have a seven-foot wingspread.

Whooping Cranes in Kaw River

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