by Grace Huffman
This month, the arrival of a pair of Whooping Cranes at Drummond Flats caused quite a bit of excitement. Not only were they found there, they stayed around and even more came! As many as 12 have been seen up there, although the last report on eBird is March 25th. It was so exciting to finally get to see some of these birds, they have been a bit of a nemesis species for me.
Whooping cranes are a conservation success story, coming back from around 21 individuals to over 660 in the wild as of 2019. There are multiple populations, 2 small non-migratory flocks in Louisiana and Florida, a small migratory flock that breeds in Wisconsin, and the largest (and only self-sustaining) flock that breeds in Canada and winters in Texas. This large population migrates through the western part of the state, but with around 500 birds in this population they are very difficult to find and cause a stir when they are reported.
Whooping Cranes are on very rare occasions reported within easy driving distance for me, but previously I’ve been unable to get to them or they didn’t stay long enough. A trip to Salt Plains NWR this past fall was also unsuccessful. However, since at least a pair was hanging out at Drummond Flats, I had a shot. A mid-week excursion was planned rather last minute for after I got off work, and off we went. An initial pass through the middle of the Flats turned up nothing, so we went to the south side, and sure enough, there they were. I got a few shots good enough to tell what they were, and since a repositioning attempt didn’t work, I thought that was all I was going to get. Boy was I wrong! Apparently while we were repositioning the cranes themselves repositioned, and they gave us a much better look. And then they began calling. It’s such an incredibly wild sounding bugle!
Once they reach their breeding grounds in Canada, they will make a nest in shallow water out of vegetation that they’ve piled up and trampled down, sometimes on a small island with tall vegetation to hide the incubating parent. Young Whooping Cranes learn their migration route from their parents, so young birds in the eastern population are taught by following ultralight aircraft. Thankfully they are making a comeback, but intense conservation efforts are still needed to manage the population. For now, I consider myself extremely blessed to have seen those four giant white birds!