Whooping Crane Decoy Survey

by Ray Kirkwood on May 10, 2012

By Linda Lanoue, certified Texas Master Naturalist

As a Mid-Coast Texas Master Naturalist, I’m used to being involved a lot of different activities, but I was still surprised to be contacted about helping with a Whooping Crane Decoy Survey for Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A what? And why?

With long-time Whooping Crane Coordinator Tom Stehn’s retirement, ANWR Biologist Brad Strobel will be primarily responsible for conducting the winter aerial surveys. Brad wanted to do a test to be sure that he will be getting an accurate count. Since there isn’t an effective way to do this using live cranes, decoys were used.

Whooping Crane decoys are not readily available, so Sandhill Crane decoys were obtained and painted in Whooping Crane colors. There were decoys for both adult and juvenile cranes. Next, GPS coordinates were randomly generated by computer for the parts of the Refuge used by Whooping Cranes. Brad would be accompanied by Biologist Diana Iriarte, so neither of them could know the coordinates. Bio-tech Lorraine Ketzler was in charge of preparing the maps, forms, and area assignments.

The next step is where we came in. A lot of people were needed, so volunteers worked with Refuge Staff. Other Mid-Coast members participating in the project were Richard Conger, Fred Lanoue, Julianne Thompson, and Barb Threatt.

Some of the areas could only be accessed by boat, and were assigned to two teams. The land areas were divided into four sections. Those of us assigned to the land units worked in teams of two, using UTVs. Brad and Diana, of course, were not present while Lorraine explained the maps and protocol. Our mission was to place the decoys in groups of one to four, as designated on our lists, as close as possible to the GPS points we were given. We were asked to only drive the UTVs on roads, firebreaks, and fence lines, because vehicle tracks are easily seen from the air. We would drive as far as we could, then take off on foot, carrying decoys, stakes, hammer, paperwork, and GPS unit. Brad had warned us that it might be physically demanding, and it was! The decoys weren’t heavy, but, being the size of Sandhill Cranes, they were bulky and awkward to handle. The temperature was in the 90’s, humidity in the upper 80’s, and the mosquitoes were hungry. Some of the locations required a lot of walking, much of it through knee-high cordgrass and other vegetation. When we reached the computer-generated points, we pounded in the stakes, placed the decoys on them, and recorded site information. If the location turned out to be inappropriate habitat, such as in the midst of an oak motte or deep water, we chose an alternate spot nearby and noted the new coordinates.

We got all the decoys out by the end of the first day. I will admit to being completely exhausted.

The next morning, Brad and Diana made their first flight. Brad marked GPS coordinates and the number of decoys as he sighted them. Later, his results could be compared to our records of decoys placed. As soon as we got word that the first survey was complete, we needed to move all the decoys so the next survey could be done. This was actually a lot easier than the first day. We could drive the UTVs to the decoys, since it no longer mattered about tracks going to them. Most of the new locations were relatively close to the original, to simulate typical crane movements within their territories. That meant a lot less walking and carrying. They made three survey flights, at different times of day to test spotting and counting in changing light conditions.

Our part in the survey was hot and tiring, but also fun. I got to see a part of the Refuge that was new to me, and enjoyed being part of such an interesting and unusual project. I’m eager to see what new volunteer adventures await us Mid-Coast Chapter members in the future.

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