Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitats in Texas

Expedition Briefing

 

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The Research

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes (Grus Americana) is the last wild, naturally migratory flock of the species in the world. The coastal marshes of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) provide crucial winter habitat for this species which had a population low of only 16 birds in 1941 and is currently estimated to be 504 individuals (95% CI = 412.4–660.3; CV = 0.122) (Stehn and Prieto 2011; US Fish and Wildlife 2019).

Whooping cranes, considered to be one of the rarest birds on the continent, are the tallest birds in North America, standing 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall with a wingspan of 2.3 m (7.5 ft.). During the summer months, this migratory population inhabits the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. In the winter, it inhabits coastal marshes at the ANWR on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Since whooping cranes rely heavily on the complex estuarine habitat at the ANWR, understanding the impacts of environmental stressors on resources in these habitats is a high priority (Butzler 2006; Butzler and Davis 2006). The data collected through this study will be critical to helping conserve the whooping crane and the overall biodiversity of the ANWR. This research will also contribute to wildlife manager’s efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of the ANWR ecosystem and to better understand and mitigate human-induced activities in the watershed.

Research Aims

Our aim is to gain a better understanding of the coastal marsh ecosystem and to determine the effects of both natural and anthropogenic (human-induced) impacts on coastal habitats and whooping crane resources. We will achieve this by investigating patterns that drive whooping crane territory quality and food resource availability. This will be accomplished by linking freshwater inflows, estuarine water level and local weather patterns to salt marsh salinity, pond salinity and various whooping crane food resources.

Blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) are a critical food resource for whooping cranes during their wintering period on the Texas Gulf coast. A portion of our research will aim to determine blue crab abundance across multiple habitat types (e.g., tidal creeks, saltwater ponds, marsh, etc.) as these habitats are critical feeding grounds for whooping cranes. Previous summer-time research conducted in collaboration with Earthwatch has investigated the physiological threshold of blue crabs to highly elevated salinity, elevated temperature, and decreased water depth. The impacts of these environmental stressors can have both positive and negative influences on crab population numbers and their overall availability to whooping cranes. The location and availability of blue crabs across the coastal landscape, which can be driven by coastal saltwater pond habitat quality, may lead to shifts in whooping crane territory selection and changes in feeding behavior.

In addition, we aim to determine the abundance of the Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), another key food resource for wintering cranes. Wolfberry plants, which are found distributed across the coastal marsh landscape, produce a small red berry that is a favorite food for foraging whooping cranes.  Much like blue crabs, the abundance and availability of these fruits can be significantly impacted by estuarine hydrology. In sum, we seek to determine how environmental factors affect coastal marsh “quality” (including the presence/absence/abundance of key food resources) and whether or not habitat quality influences wading bird and whooping crane habitat selection and behavior.

By gathering data and quantifying aspects of whooping crane resources and habitat quality, our study will inform future conservation efforts and could help to sustain crane population recovery.

How You Will Help

You’ll try your hand at a variety of data collection methods. None of these tasks require any special background or talents; we will train you in all necessary skills. From complete novice to experienced naturalist, everyone can participate fully and help us record and interpret our findings.

Ecosystem Assessments of Food Resources and Water Quality

You will help sample a wide range of tidal creeks, ponds, and high marsh plateaus, bays, and uplands in key whooping crane territories at the ANWR. At set points along a transect line, you will collect data on vegetation, blue crabs, as well as water salinity, depth, pH, and dissolved oxygen. You will learn to follow GPS readings and trail markings as you sample along transects.

Wading Bird Observations

You’ll conduct whooping crane observations from boats. During observations, you will learn to identify specific whooping crane behaviors, including foraging, resting, comfort, and maintenance. Specific attention will be given to identifying individual whooping cranes that possess bird-specific bands on their legs. These birds have been banded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their habitat selection/preferences can be “tracked” by Earthwatch volunteers through repeated sightings and location documentation throughout the wintering period. We will report our findings back to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in an effort to provide up to date information on crane locations and territory selection.

Life in the Field

Upon arrival, you’ll receive a safety briefing and a presentation on local history, conservation priorities for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, local examples of global issues, the history of the whooping crane and a framework for all the project’s key protocols. When we begin our fieldwork, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task; we’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure data quality. Throughout the week, you will participate in discussions of possible solutions to both regional and global conservation issues.

All days will start with a group breakfast at the accommodation. You will make your own breakfast and will then prepare a sack lunch. Afterwards, we will have a morning briefing to outline the general schedule for the day. This briefing will give everyone a clear idea of what the day will bring, what supplies you will need and when we anticipate returning to accommodation.

The morning hours will be dedicated to fieldwork including habitat assessments and bird surveys at various coastal marsh sites. Around noon, we will enjoy our sack lunches and a short break out in the field. Afternoons will vary according to weather conditions and research needs. Some days we will tackle more fieldwork while other days we will focus more on data entry and analysis. After a long day of fieldwork and data collection, we will all return to the accommodations for showers and relaxation. Then, we will convene for a group dinner and evening wrap up of the day’s events. Guest lectures and supplemental presentations on coastal ecology, whooping crane ecology, etc. may also occur in the evenings.

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

DAILY ACTIVITIES

Generally, the research team sets off to the forest at or shortly before 7:00 a.m. each morning. Depending on the activity, the research team may return to camp for a lunch break or carry a packed lunch and work till about 4:00 p.m. On some days the team may not return to the forest in the afternoon, and will instead sort, compile, and profile the insects and biomass samples collected, usually working in the lab at the camp. The team will alternate between activities, and you’ll receive a full schedule on arrival. Data collection in local communities is often an afternoon activity. This allows the locals to attend to their subsistence farms in the mornings.

ITINERARY

Day 1: Arrival

Arrive at Corpus Christi International Airport and meet Dr. Jeffrey Wozniak at baggage claim. Travel to accommodations at Hopper’s Landing. Unpack and settle before having a group dinner.

Day 2: Introduction, Background & Training

Following breakfast, we will start our day by traveling to the town of Fulton where we will embark on a birding cruise. The goal of this trip will be to not only view a wide range of coastal birds, but also to begin our introduction to the whooping crane and their coastal wetland habitats.

Following the trip, we will have lunch in Fulton and then visit the International Crane Foundation (Texas Program) offices in Fulton. Here, we will present a wide range of lecture presentations on coastal/estuarine ecology and whooping crane biology. We will also begin our training on our crane observation method and habitat assessments.

Days 3–6: Research

The general schedule for these days will be the same: We will have our breakfast at the accommodation then head out of morning fieldwork at various sites along the ANWR coastline. Each day will vary, but our general field tasks will revolve around habitat assessments (water quality, vegetation sampling, etc.) and bird surveys. We will also have time to conduct new research efforts that the group might conceptualize as we all learn more about the system. Depending on workload and weather conditions during this time (as a note, weather conditions in the winter can be variable with storms blowing in with little notice), it is possible for us to rotate two groups: one boat-based team for habitat assessment and one land-based team for bird surveys and data entry. These two groups would rotate between these two activities in the morning and afternoon so that all participants get to experience both activities.

Day 7: Program Close & Departure

On the final day of the program we will spend the morning discussing how our research finds from the program can be used to better preserve and manage the coastal marshes at ANWR. We will seek to understand how current conditions throughout the estuary compare to other extremes that the system has experienced over the past few decades. Depart ANWR and travel to Corpus Christi International Airport.

DAILY SCHEDULE

  • 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 8:00 a.m. Head out for fieldwork 12:30 p.m. Lunch in field
  • 1:30 p.m. Continue fieldwork
  • 5:00 p.m. Return from field—Downtime
  • 6:00 p.m. Meet to QA/QC data sheets/review the day 7:00 p.m. Dinner
  • 8:00 p.m. Possible lectures, films, or downtime

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.

SLEEPING

You’ll be staying at Hopper’s Landing, a family owned and operated fishing camp on the shores of San Antonio Bay that has been in operation is 1939. Hopper’s is comprised of several rustic cabins and a tavern run by the family that is open in the evenings. The accommodation is located just three miles north of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge—providing an ideal starting point for our daily research activities. The cabins offer shared rooms with a mix of full size, twin size, and bunk beds. Each cabin is climate controlled and has fully functional kitchens and bathrooms. All bedding and bath linens will be provided. Shared lodging for husbands/wives is not guaranteed and can be difficult to accommodate based on team size and make-up, please check with Earthwatch prior to fielding to determine the feasibility.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

BATHROOMS

Each cabin at Hopper’s Landing has a bathroom facility with hot water and conventional toilets.

ELECTRICITY

You are welcome to bring electrical equipment, as the housing will have standard electrical outlets.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

Depending on your mobile phone carrier, cell service can be found, but is highly variable in the region. We will carry portable radios in the field with us so we can contact each other and the refuge if needed. Public Wi-Fi is not available at the accommodation.

Personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition, especially in this remote fielding location in south Texas. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.

DISTANCE TO THE FIELD SITE

Research will take place in coastal marsh research sites along the Blackjack Peninsula. Blackjack Peninsula takes approximately 30 minutes to reach from the accommodations, including a 15-minute van ride to the docks and then 10–20 minute boat ride to the various research sites along the Peninsula.

FOOD AND WATER

Food will be prepared by team members on a daily basis with support from members of staff. Cooking duties will be shared by team members and guided by members of staff. Meals will include local specialties, such as Texas barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Gulf of Mexico seafood. Volunteers are encouraged to bring any dietary specific snacks that they may require. Some foods are difficult to find in the area since it is remote. Please contact Earthwatch if your have additional specific dietary needs not captured in the pre-fielding paperwork to see if they can be accomodated and help the field staff prepare if possible.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Cereal, fruit, bagels, yogurt, coffee
  • Lunch: Sandwich (peanut butter & jelly or deli meat), fruit, chips, granola bars, trail mix
  • Dinner: Pasta, salad and garlic bread, burgers and hot dogs on the grill, Tex-Mex fajitas, Cajun feast (Cajun rice, chicken), smoked sausage on the grill, pulled pork sandwiches, repeat as necessary.
  • Snacks: Fruit, chips, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
  • Beverages: Water (okay to drink from tap), Gatorade
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

This project can cater to vegetarian diets easily, as well as vegan, and lactose-free diets.

Project Conditions

The information that follows is as accurate as possible, but please keep in mind that conditions may change.

Winter conditions on the Gulf Coast can be cold, windy, and rainy. During the winter months, mosquitoes are not nearly as bad as in the summertime, but they can still be present and all volunteers should prepare for them; however, the coastal breeze can help to keep them at bay. Research will be conducted on flat coastal marshes. Although moderate fitness and balance are required for getting into and out of the research boat and for traversing the slippery coastal marshes, we strive to make the project as accessible as possible. You will get wet and muddy on this expedition, but that is part of the fun!

GENERAL CONDITIONS

For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather conditions (cold and windy, rainy to warm and humid), in the potential presence of wild animals and biting insects.
  • Tolerate a wide temperature range. Early mornings may begin with a light frost, mid day conditions can bring higher temperatures, all combined with elevated coastal winds.
  • Traverse slippery/muddy marshes, soft ground, surface water, underbrush, etc. for 3–4 hours over 2 miles per day.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment.
  • Repeatedly squat low enough to collect samples or record plant growth data.
  • Sit on a small stool (~10 inches of ground) in a blind conducting bird surveys for 3–4 hours
  • Sit upright in a 15-person van and 18-foot research boat on bumpy dirt roads and/ or rough water conditions.

Health and Safety

EMERGENCIES IN THE FIELD

Project staff members are not medical professionals.

The project will have cell phones and two-way radios for communication among the team while conducting fieldwork.

Accommodations and vehicles all have first-aid kits. In the event of a medical emergency, the Earthwatch scientists will administer first aid, and depending on the seriousness of the injury/condition, either take the volunteer to the hospital using one of the project vehicles (always available) or call emergency services by cell phone. If a volunteer has to leave the expedition early for emergency reasons, the Earthwatch scientists will determine the most appropriate form of transport to the airport (either one of the project vehicles or ambulance).

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.

IMMUNIZATIONS & TRAVEL VACCINATIONS

Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions

Transportation

We will travel on public roads in a quiet area with few traffic issues, but risks inherent in road travel still apply. We’ll take some gravel roads, generally in good condition. Vehicles are maintained to Texas standards. All volunteers will have a seat belt and must use it whenever the vehicle is in motion. A roadside assistance service will be called if a vehicle breaks down.

We will also use boats to travel across open water to study sites. The vessel is large (18 ft.), fully equipped with safety equipment (life jackets, flares, first-aid kit), navigation, and communication items. However, there is always potential for the ride to become bumpy for some portion of the trip. During rougher conditions there is the potential for sea spray to be present which will get volunteers wet—a set of rain gear is required to avoid issues with cold temperatures.

Hiking

You will be walking along transects and the terrain will be uneven and soggy/mucky. You may take your time with any sections of challenging terrain. Take particular care to avoid stepping on any plants/animals that may be present; the Earthwatch scientists will highlight this hazard and show how to walk with appropriate caution when introducing you to the field site.

Getting Lost

Staff will count team members at frequent intervals, and will caution you against going off alone. Please inform project staff if you need a moment away from the team. Volunteers will work in groups of at least two at all times. We will have cell phones, and reception is good in inland regions. The scientists take great care of knowing, at all times, which area each volunteer is working in, so that lost volunteers can be located quickly and expediently by project staff.

Animals

We will cover appropriate responses to wildlife encounters in the introductory briefing. Do not approach or handle any wildlife. Though spotting dangerous animals such as alligators and venomous snakes is uncommon, always pay attention to your surroundings.

Ticks are present in Texas and can carry Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, and Relapsing Fever. Black flies and mosquitoes can cause irritation in the summer. To avoid insect bites, cover exposed skin and use tick/insect repellant or a mosquito head net. If mosquitoes are bad, full mosquito clothing will be provided.

Personal Security

Texas is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas.

Swimming

Although the accommodations are close to tempting white-sand beaches, we do NOT permit swimming and other water sports during this expedition for safety reasons.

Distance from Medical Care

Due to the relative remoteness of the site, it can take up to thirty minutes to reach the nearest hospital. Those with severe or chronic conditions that may require immediate medical care (e.g., heart problems, severe allergies that can result in anaphylactic shock, etc.) should carefully consider their participation in this project and discuss with their doctors the implications of the distance of the hospital from the project site.

Disease

Please see the Health Information section for immunization recommendations. Most diseases are prevented with basic safety cautions. Please see the CDC (cdc.gov) or WHO (who.int) websites for more information.

Diseases present in this region of the US include, but are not limited to, Lyme disease, rabies, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, pertussis, West Nile Fever, and traveler’s diarrhea.

Traveler’s Diarrhea

Traveler’s diarrhea affects 20–50% of all international travelers. Always wash your hands with soap and water or a hand sanitizer before eating. You should also carry an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication in your personal first aid kit. Speak to your doctor about other options for treating traveler’s diarrhea.

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION

Corpus Christi International Airport, Texas

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.

ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION

Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.

COUNTRY AND PROJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.

Resources

ARTICLES
  • Wozniak, J.R., T.M. Swannack, R. Butzler, C. Llewellyn, and S.E. Davis III. 2012. River inflow, estuarine salinity, and Carolina wolfberry fruit abundance: linking abiotic drivers to Whooping Crane food. Journal of Coastal Conservation 16(3): 345-354.
PROJECT-RELATED WEBSITE
LITERATURE CITED
  • Butzler, R.E. 2006. Spatial and temporal patterns of Lycium carolinianum Walt., the Carolina wolfberry, in the salt marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Master’s Thesis. Texas A&M University.
  • Butzler R.E., Davis S.E. (2006) Growth patterns of Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum L.) in the salt marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas USA. Wetlands 26:845-853.
  • Stehn, T.V. and F. Prieto. 2011. Changes in winter whooping crane territories and range 1950-2006. pp. 40-56, in B.K. Hartup, editor. Proceedings of the Eleventh North American Crane Workshop, North American Crane Working Group, Leesburg Printing, Leesburg, Florida, USA.
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service

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