Sunday morning brought blue skies, a pleasant breeze, and the news that it was -1° back home in New York. The three of us were enjoying 70° temperatures in the town of Rockport on Aransas Bay. This town is a jumping-off point for boat tours into Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The waterways of this protected area are home to alligators, dolphins, and myriad birds, including the stately Whooping Crane. This species is one of the largest birds in North America, standing nearly 5 feet tall with a wingspan of over 7 feet. In the 1940s, there were fewer than 2 dozen individual Whoopers left alive in the entire world. Extensive recovery efforts involved captive breeding programs and guided migrations using aircraft to teach young birds where to fly for the winter. Today, the population has increased to several hundred individuals. The largest flock, and the only population which is not reintroduced, breeds in northern Canada and winters along the Texas coast. Visitors to Aransas can often see these birds feeding in the distance from observation areas along the refuge’s wildlife drive. For guests who want to get up close and personal with the cranes, there are several tour options that motor out across the bay and get much better views. We decided that the extra cost was worth the opportunity to really enjoy our encounter, so we signed up for a trip aboard the Skimmer.
We checked out of the motel, loading our gear into the car while a Black-crested Titmouse chirped in a nearby tree. Rockport’s port was only a few blocks from where we stayed, so it wasn’t long before we were boarding the vessel for a 3-hour tour. The guides followed the familiar wildlife narration format I’ve performed so many times: quick safety briefing, background information, and details about species we’d be spotting. The sun climbed higher over Aransas Bay as we approached the grassy pools and channels of the refuge. The tour was greeted by a variety of terns, pelicans, ducks, and shorebirds. I spotted my first Long-billed Curlews foraging in the shallows and Bottlenose Dolphins splashing around near our boat. The area also features heavy traffic for transport barges, and we had to navigate around several large shipping vessels throughout our trip. Before long, the skipper received a tip from another boat that our targets were nearby.
We pulled around a bend to find a trio of giant, white birds wading through a pool. Whooping Cranes defend a territory as a family group, and this pair was feeding alongside their near-adult offspring. They strolled through the water in search of Blue Crabs and similar morsels, occasionally pausing to pass food to the youngster. Having read so much about these birds and their brush with near-extinction, the species was on my “most-wanted” list for a very long time. I’d looked for them last April when my family visited Florida, scanning from the car window as we passed through a region where reintroduced cranes had been hanging out. No sightings that time, but in a way it made this encounter that much sweeter. I felt privileged to finally observe these majestic birds in their natural habitat. The skipper grounded the boat so we could watch them and take photos without the vessel rocking, and we spent a few minutes admiring them at fairly close range.
The Whoopers continued to feed and gradually moved towards the back of the pool, so we took our leave once all the observers had their fill. We continued to cruise deeper into Aransas, spotting more crane families peering out of the grass in the distance. In total, we observed nearly 30 individual cranes feeding and flying over the course of our tour. For perspective, recall that there were once fewer surviving Whooping Cranes than I observed in this single day. The species remains critically endangered, but the successes of the past few decades provide hope for its continued existence. We are fortunate that the bugling calls and wide, white wings of this beautiful bird have not been lost to history. The crane serves as a living reminder that, for better or for worse, humans have a huge impact on the state of the world around them. Recovery projects still face their share of hardships, but at least we know our conservation efforts can lead to happier endings.
We spotted over 40 species of birds on our tour through Aransas, including Great Horned Owl, Wilson’s Snipe, and Reddish Egret. We had to fight the wind and waves a bit on our return trip to port, but a little salt spray never hurt anyone. Lauren, Col, and I remained on the top deck, soaking up sunlight while most of the other passengers went to the cabin below. We thanked the captain and staff as we disembarked, and the ladies picked up some merchandise at the gift shop. Lauren needed to return to Houston by that night, so we enjoyed a delicious lunch and made one more birding stop as a full team. A nearby pond featured my lifer Vermilion Flycatcher and Lauren’s first Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, which made for a nice send-off for our little Project Puffin family. She brought us to the local airport, where Col had reserved a rental car for the remainder of the trip. After some paperwork and minor headaches, Lauren turned north and we turned south, heading towards the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
The drive down the coast continued to bring the excitement. The countless roadside raptors included a few Harris’s Hawks, which was an exciting first for both Col and me. We stopped at a rest area near Sarita, known among birders as a first taste of Valley birds for folks approaching from the north. We spotted a few Green Jays, an eye-popping species that we would come to know very well during the coming days, as well as a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds. Although we were missing our third amigo, the excitement was high knowing that we were entering a whole new world of species and habitats we’d never encountered before.
Sunset found us in the town of Weslaco. We birded the residential roads of this strange city in the fading light, searching for flocks of Red-crowned Parrots. This species is native to Mexico, but large groups of them have taken up residence in the extreme south of Texas. They first moved into the area during the ’70s and ’80s, allegedly due to increased production of favored crops and availability of tree cavities for nesting. Some believe that the flocks are largely composed of escaped captive birds, but it is likely that at least some of them are wild individuals who moved north into the States. Regardless of their origins, the birds are now found in abundance just north of the Rio Grande. We rolled around with the windows down, listening for their squawks and screams. At one intersection, I pointed right towards some faintly-heard possible parrots. I turned to Col, who was pointing left at a tree full of bright green birds.
South Texas is weird.
Year List Update, February 14 – 190 Species (+ Black-crested Titmouse, Caspian Tern, Long-billed Curlew, American Oystercatcher, Whooping Crane, Reddish Egret, Blue-winged Teal, Wilson’s Snipe, Spotted Sandpiper, Vermilion Flycatcher, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Harris’s Hawk, Brewer’s Blackbird, Green Jay, Red-crowned Parrot)