TPWD says whooping cranes are on the move

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2011 file photo, a pair of whooping cranes walk through shallow marsh water looking for food near the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Fulton, Texas. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled 2021’s flights to count only natural flock of whooping cranes — the first time in 71 years that crews in Texas couldn't make an aerial survey of the world’s rarest cranes. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Texas wildlife officials have issued an alert that whooping cranes, one of the largest and rarest birds in North America, are beginning their winter migration to coastal marshes in the state.

Biologists caution hunters to make sure they differentiate the whooping cranes from sandhill cranes, which are a game bird whose season is now open in North Texas and will open in the rest of the state over the next six weeks.

Whooping cranes make a 2,500-mile annual trek from their breeding grounds in northern Alberta, Canada, to the Texas gulf coast to winter in the marshes. Their fall migration may take as long as 50 days.

“ During their migration, whooping cranes seek out wetlands and agricultural fields where they can roost and feed,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials said in a statement. “The birds often pass large urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth, Waco and Austin.”

“ Though whooping cranes rarely stay in one place for more than a day during migration, it is important that they not be disturbed or harassed at these stopovers,” TPWD added. “As a federally protected species, it is illegal to disturb or harass these birds.”

The problem, TPWD says, is that whooping cranes often travel in mixed flocks with sandhill cranes, which are just slightly smaller.

The main way to differentiate the two species is whooping cranes have an all-white body with black wingtips, while sandhill cranes have a gray body.

Other potential mimics of whooping cranes are snow geese, which are much smaller, as well as non-game species such as wood storks, American white pelicans and species of white egrets.

TPWD officials say the public can help play a role in monitoring the whooping cranes, which now number just over 500 birds, by reporting sightings to Texas Whooper Watch, a citizen-based science reporting program designed to crowdsource whooping crane migration and wintering locations in Texas.

The program can be accessed by going online to the TPWD website and searching for Whooper Watch.