Spring Whoopers

“It’s time to light the fires and kick the tires!” Captain Jay announced and then he turned and headed up to the bridge to ease us out of Fulton Harbor. 

As the Skimmer headed out of port, for a three and a half hour tour, laughing gulls covered the docked boats and breakwater. It was funny to think that birders where picking trough large gull flocks at Pilarcitos Creek to find this extremely common gull on the Coastal Bend. It reminded me that even somewhere, every bird is rare.

Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore! Laughing gulls in the swimming pool in Rockport.

But the “power birders” on board where not here to look at common gulls of the Gulf Coast. We where here for a bigger and rarer bird. Everyone wanted to check off the elegant whooping crane (Grus americana) on their lifelists.

One reason that the whooper is such a desirable bird is because of it’s rarity. In 1941 there were only 21 cranes in existence. And today there are about 350 birds that breed in Canada and winter in the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Coastal Texas. The whoopers success has much to do with the efforts of biogists and the captive breeding programs. The Texas birds represent the only migratory, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes in the world.

The second reason that these birds are so desirable is that they are simply beautiful. Cranes are a revered group of birds the world over. These birds are known for their iconic beauty and grace and they are often represented in art and origami. Their haunting bulging call is know by many cultures. They are collectively known as “Birds of Heaven”.

After motoring across the bay we entered Dunham Bay, a wide intercostal waterway which is a watery boulevard for shrimp and oyster boats. The captain throttled down and he then explained that cranes were not guaranteed in the spring. The entire Texas population could be on the wing, headed north for their Canadian breeding grounds. We were going to keep our fingers crossed.

All eyes scanned the shoreline looking for the bird that Captain Jay affectionately called “the Marsh Cow”. Was that far off white bird a lifer?! No it was just a white egret. How hard could the tallest bird in North America be to find? You’d think they would stand out like two large, white sore thumbs. Two because mated pairs are almost always seen together and sometimes with a single juvenile.

From above came the shout, “Cranes!” And all binoculars where trained and focused on the port side. In the far channel, on the far shore, were two foraging whoopers! Within an hour into our cruise, we had out target bird!

“I love spring cranes!” Captain Jay enthused from the bridge.

Whooper field sketch from the steps of the Skimmer.

Overall we saw a total of ten cranes. We got close to one pair as Captain Jay drifted into one foot of water at the edge of the reeds. The two cranes, whose very existence today, was so dependent on the human species, paid no attention to us as they foraged and preened to the presences of the species who brought them back from the brink. But their presence in this marsh, on this earth, was thank you enough.

A pre-Texas Whooping Crane sketch.



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