UPDATED: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 11:49am
Wildlife officials are asking the public join Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Texas Whooper Watch effort and watch for the endangered birds as they close out an unusual winter season in the state.
Whooping cranes traditionally winter in coastal Texas on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and nearby areas, and that site continues to be the primary winter home of the flock that now numbers around 280 birds; however, a significant number of whooping cranes explored new wintering areas in 2012-13.
Among the nomadic whoopers, at least two whoopers spent most of the winter in Matagorda County near Collegeport, at least five were observed wintering in Wharton County near El Campo and Louise, and at least 10 whoopers occupied country far from the coast in Williamson County near Granger Lake. In addition, several individual sightings of whooping cranes were reported in Lavaca County and as far north as Wilbarger County.
Some of those "non-traditional" whooping cranes also broke with migration tradition this year, said Lee Ann Johnson Linam, a wildlife diversity biologist with TPWD.
"Normally, whooping crane spring migration begins in late March, with nearly all birds departing for the nesting grounds in Canada by mid-April," she noted. "However, a USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) radio-tracking study and observations by volunteers with Texas Whooper Watch detected an earlier start to migration this year."
The new patterns for whooping cranes are an interesting development, according to Linam. As the whooping crane population that winters in Texas continues to recover, it is a healthy sign that the species is exploring new wintering grounds.
"The expansion of whooping cranes that we saw last winter and this winter brings new challenges, such as public awareness, adjusting management strategies, and trying to obtain population estimates," she said. "But there is additional security in not having the species concentrated at one location."
Linam also noted that the expansion has been a success in terms of winter survival on non-traditional sites, landowner acceptance, and public enthusiasm for additional opportunities to view whooping cranes.
"In fact, while two whooping crane mortalities were documented on the traditional wintering grounds this year, no mortalities were reported from non-traditional sites," said Linam. "On the other hand, little is known about how well these cranes fare when they return to the nesting grounds. More information is needed on productivity of whooping cranes wintering in agricultural areas and whether food issues contribute to an earlier departure time."
Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Victoria, Austin, Waco, Fort Worth and Wichita Falls. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. They nearly always migrate in small groups of less than 6-8 birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane. They are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet tall. They are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.
Texans can help by reporting sightings of Whooping Cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations. Sightings can be reported to firstname.lastname@example.org  or 512-389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs.
Additional information, including photos of Whooping Crane look-alike species, can be found at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/whoopingcranes/  and at http://www.whoopingcrane.com/report-a-sighting/ .