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Whooping crane southern migration takes off

The world’s only remaining naturally occurring flock of whooping cranes left Canada in mid-September and is on its way to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Aransas, Texas. They should begin arriving in mid-October.

The world’s only remaining naturally occurring flock of whooping cranes has left Canada and is on its way to its winter home in the Coastal Bend. The birds will return to find a changed landscape after the eye wall of Hurricane Harvey, with its Category 4 winds, whipped through the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Aug. 25-26.

A record number of birds — about 400 —should begin arriving at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in mid-October. They bring with them the largest number of chicks in their more than 75 years on the endangered species list.

The 4,500-acre refuge lies on the Blackjack Peninsula south of Austwell, a small community about 20 miles from Rockport and Port Aransas. While 130-plus-mph winds eroded beaches and took out observation decks and buildings, the biggest question remains the long-term effect on the surrounding marshland.

Within the brackish marshes, whooping cranes find their sustenance: blue crabs, pistol shrimp and clams. Debris removal is underway, with the biggest dangers coming from chemical contaminants and human debris, including boats and barges that washed around on San Jose Island.

The cranes themselves will help with that assessment. By watching where the birds fly and how much they have to fly to get to food sources, wildlife experts will know which marshes are providing a good source and which areas could have trouble and should be checked for debris or contamination.

The refuge also has to prepare for the 60,000 human visitors who flock to the area just behind the birds. A record number of people will be expected to visit the record number of chicks.

At last count in Canada, 62 new fledglings, including four sets of twins, departed with the flock.

The birds spend spring and summer months in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, where they breed and prepare their young for migration. They leave for the Texas Coast in mid- to late September. The first arrivals will appear in mid-October. Most of the flock should be securely ensconced by mid-December.

For more on whooping cranes and the annual Whooping Crane Festival in Rockport, visit whoopingcranefestival.org.

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