By MIKE CORN
The outlook is a bit brighter for the critically endangered whooping crane, at least in terms of what many have suggested is an imperfect method of counting the last naturally migrating flock of the birds.
The latest survey by whooping crane recovery coordinator Wade Harrell suggests 304 whooping cranes overwintered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas.
The estimate includes 39 juveniles, only 15 of which were born in the past year and joined the 116 adult pairs in migrating the 2,500 miles from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada to Texas.
The birds frequently stop off in Kansas, most often at either the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near St. John or Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area near Great Bend.
Earlier this week, however, as many as nine whooping cranes were spotted in a Marion County field of corn stubble.
The survey is a bit of good news for the whooping cranes.
Last year, the survey suggested just 257 whooping cranes were in the refuge area. That was up only slightly from the 254 estimate in the 2011-12 winter season.
The surveys, however, have been subject of intense criticism because they no longer count individual birds, but rather fly predetermined transects and create mathematical estimates.
This year, the estimate ranges from 260 to 354 birds.
Harrell also is suggesting the accuracy of the survey is improved this year due to "increased observer experience and refinement of methods."
The 2012-13 winter season survey showed anywhere form 178 to 362 birds. The year-earlier survey ranged from 198 to 324 birds.
As a footnote, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the data are subject to revision.