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WHOOPING CRANES
MAKE RARE VISIT TO BRAZOS BASIN LAKE

People who make a stop at Lake Granger in Williamson County may have noticed they are not the only creatures paying a visit. This winter, a group of whooping cranes has chosen the lake as their seasonal home during their annual southward migration.

Six of the endangered birds have settled in at the lake a few miles east of Taylor in Central Texas, a couple hundred miles north of their typical winter home along the Gulf Coast near Port Aransas. While officials are not sure what caused the birds to change their travel plans, Texas’ record-breaking drought is a prime suspect.

The birds first made their appearance at the lake about mid-November, says James Chambers, manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake where the Brazos River Authority stores water. The six include two sets of adult pairs, each pair with one chick.

Whooping cranes were driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century, mainly due unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), by the mid 1940s, fewer than 20 whooping cranes were left in the wild in North America. They don’t live elsewhere around the globe. Thanks to conservation efforts and federal protection, as of October 2010, 407 were thought to live in the wild. In addition, more than 70 of the birds live in captivity at research centers and zoos.

Each fall, the cranes fly about 2,500 miles south from their warm-weather homes in Canada and the far northern United States in just a few days. Most that head to Texas typically end their marathon journey in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which is operated by the FWS. But this year the birds have been more dispersed, and one explanation may be the affect the drought has had on their food supply, says Dan Alonso, the refuge’s manager.

Chambers says the Granger Lake cranes might have chosen that location because it has more of a “wetlands feel” than other area waterbodies. The cranes have apparently found enough food in and around the lake to cause them to stick around, he said.

Winter is typically a slower time of year at the lake. Visitor numbers are up this winter, and Chambers said he thinks the cranes bear some of the credit.

At nearly 5 feet tall and with a wingspan of about 7.5 feet, whoopers are the tallest birds in North America. They are mainly white with black wingtips and rust-colored patches on their heads. They get their name from the sound they make when they call out.

“The whooping crane truly is a magnificent bird. They are very majestic in their flight,” Chambers said. “Their impressive size and wing span are something to witness. I've heard that less than 1 percent of the world's population will ever see an endangered species. Now I'm not sure if that is true, but to have such a rare occasion take place here in Central Texas is quite remarkable.”

Chambers said a good place to view the birds is from Friendship Park, off Farm-to-Market Road 971, on the north end of the dam. Admission to the park is free and most bird watchers set up along the shoreline between the boat ramp and swim beach, he said.

However, to keep from harming the birds, people should be careful not to disturb them and should stay several hundred feet away. Most of the cranes’ feeding areas aren’t easily accessible by the public. If the birds feel threatened, they will walk or fly to put distance between themselves and people, Alonso said. Since whooping cranes are a federally protected endangered species, people should be careful not to harass or harm them. Doing so could result in fines and prison time.

People could have an opportunity to see the Lake Granger cranes through about mid-April, when they typically make their return journey north. For more information about the cranes and conservation efforts, please click here. To learn more about Lake Granger, please click here, and go here to learn about the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.