- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

ROCKPORT, Texas (AP) - Colts in the only wild, self-sustaining flock of endangered whooping cranes have lost much of their cinnamon color.

The Victoria Advocate (https://bit.ly/2kaqS2Q ) reports the almost 5-foot-tall birds have taken on the white plumage of adulthood during their past few months in Texas. Every year the birds fly about 2,700 miles south from their nesting grounds in Canada to their wintering grounds on and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys the birds while they winter in the state. While the service conducted several flights over the wintering grounds in December to count the birds, the survey results will not be available until later in the spring, said U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator Wade Harrell.

Poor flying conditions meant observers were unable to count four of the nine days they had pilots and planes available. So observers plan to go out again in February to tally birds in the areas they missed.

Last year, the service estimated 329 birds used the primary wintering range; additional birds were seen outside the survey area. That’s up from less than 20 birds in the 1940s.

The flock’s remarkable recovery has made the birds some of the most famous winter Texans. Boat tours out of the Rockport-Fulton area take birders along the shoreline of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where they’re able to view family groups and clusters of juvenile birds, which have not yet paired off.

Two British birders flew almost twice as far as the birds themselves to see the whooping cranes. Tom Howard and Wilfred Banfield boarded a boat with Aransas Bay Birding Charters to photograph the birds Saturday.

They were able to spot 25 whoopers in about six hours in addition to several species of shorebirds.

“It’s fantastic,” Banfield said. “It’s a bird that’s very rare and has been brought back from the verge of extinction.”

Last April, the men ventured to the Rio Grande area, where they were able to view a variety of warbler species. But the trip this time was primarily to witness the largest bird in North America, the endangered whooping crane.

It’s not unusual for people to come from all over the world to view the birds, said Aransas Bay Birding Charters co-owner Kevin Sims. January through March are the most popular months for the whooping crane tours. The birds migrate back to Canada in min-April.

Despite taking people out to view the birds throughout the winter season, Sims said he never tires of watching the whooping cranes.

“It’s always exciting,” he said.

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Information from: The Victoria Advocate, https://www.victoriaadvocate.com

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