Ron Heflin, Associated Press
HARLINGEN, Texas Once down to about 15, the world's only wild flock of the statuesque whooping crane has continued its comeback, now numbering a record 237 birds in its Texas Coastal Bend wintering ground.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Tom Stehn, who tracks the whooping crane flock, said 45 cranes were born this year, including seven sets of surviving twins, which is unusual for the species.
Stehn rides in a single-engine plane at low altitude over the 35-mile stretch of Texas coastline where the birds feast on blue crab and wolfberries. The birds tend to stay in family groups in territories about a mile wide.
Stehn plots the small groups on photocopied maps of the areas. Last year he counted 220, and this year, 237.
Whooping cranes were one of the first species to appear to rebound from extinction over the past century thanks to a concentrated effort of legislation and public awareness. While far from reaching the kind of numbers enjoyed by the gray whale and American peregrine falcon on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's list of recovered species, their numbers have slowly increased since counting started in 1938.
The Texas coast has had a good decade for species recovery, most notably perhaps with the whooping crane and the Kemp's ridley sea turtle on Padre Island.
The Kemp's ridley nests only within about a 200-mile section of northern Mexico's Gulf of Mexico coastline and due to harvesting was by 1978 on the brink of extinction.
Through a binational recovery project, turtles were brought to nest on South Texas' beaches. The female
turtles always return to nest on the beach where they were born, and the number of nests on this newly programmed nesting ground has steadily increased.
But several inland species don't seem as lucky. Attempts to restore habitat for ocelots and jaguarundi in Deep South Texas so far haven't yielded notable population increases. And the 10,500-acre Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston hasn't been able to bring back the bird that biologists know for its spectacular mating dance.
"It's kind of a counter story to the whooping crane a native Texas species that isn't doing so hot," Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said.
It took most of the 20th century to educate people about the whooping crane.
Government action also helped. A 1916 treaty between the United States and Canada, which was later expanded to include Mexico, Russia and Japan, made it illegal to shoot birds outside of an established hunting season. Land for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, which covers a large part of the whoopers' wintering grounds, was acquired in the 1930s to protect water fowl.
Stehn credited this year's record number of young to mild weather at their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada's boreal forest.
The Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce has links to several tour operators on its Web site, www.rockport-fulton.org.
The Chamber's Leora Pimentel said visitors' chances of seeing the cranes are "very likely."
"They don't hide," she said if the cranes. "And people will also see sand hills (cranes) and other wildlife."