Once upon a time, the tallest bird in North America, Grus americana, filled the Texas autumn skies. Tens of thousands of whooping cranes flew south every winter from Canada to the coastal wetlands of the Gulf Coast. The first European explorers documented the graceful bird's abundance throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. By the middle of the 20th century, hunting and habitat loss reduced the population to less than 20. Today, thanks to the efforts of scientists and protections provided by federal governments, there are over 300 native "whoopers" in a migratory flock at Aransas Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
On a glorious sun filled winter's day, my mother and I drove to Rockport nearly 3.5 hours south of Houston. Once past the city, highway 35 winds through native prairies, farmlands, and coastal views. The day before we scheduled a whooping crane tour for a 1:00 p.m. departure through Rockport Adventures. Rockport is situated on the inside of Aransas Bay while San Juan Barrier Island forms the opposite shore. The Gulf of Mexico is beyond the barrier island. After the Civil War, Rockport was founded as a cattle town and shipping port. Today, fishing, tourism, and the Intracoastal Waterway are the primary businesses and, of course, the magnificent whooping crane migratory grounds from November to April along with many other species of over-wintering birds.
My mother and I at Lighthouse Inn dock on Aransas Bay.
Cormorants and White Pelicans sunning in Aransas Wildlife Refuge.
Many large vessels working along the Gulf Coast use the Intracoastal Waterway. This ship passed right through the Aransas Wildlife Refuge. Although the numbers of whoopers are increasing, this native flock is at risk from chemical or oil spill accidents.
In 1941, the whooping cranes were near extinction with less than 20 remaining. In Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. the birds are protected. Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, both the birds and their habitats are safeguarded. In the winter of 2014-15, the official estimate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of the number whooping cranes in the refuge area was 308. Our leader of the tour, Capt. Jay Tarkington stated, "all 300 or so here today are from the original 15 birds." We arrive at the dock ready to spend a few hours on the water. The boat, Skimmer, is 2 stories with interior seats and big windows down below and a viewing deck above. High-quality binoculars are provided for all to use. Captain Jay Tarkington is a biologist from the area and a wealth of information on the history of Rockport and the surrounding wildlife. Many of the passengers are avid birders armed with incredible cameras and field knowledge. Not a single living being was overlooked during the tour. Whooping cranes mate for life unless one dies. The birds travel to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada for the summer. According to our Captain, "They do all their mating and courtship in Canada and typically lay 2 eggs but raise only 1 offspring. They want to ensure they have enough resources for survival." The journey to the northern mating grounds is nearly 2500 miles. During the winter, the whoopers feed on Texas blue crabs, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, and marsh plants. The birds are territorial and gather in family groups of 3; female, male and juvenile. After the first year, juveniles will group together with other young birds. Our tour group was lucky as the whooping cranes were enjoying lunch close to the channel.
A family group as seen from the boat.
Whooping cranes are almost entirely white with black-tipped wings and a red leather patch on their head. They stand 5 feet tall. Their wingspan is over 7 feet. Their loud calls during courtship are how the birds received their name. Whooping cranes are one of the rarest bird in North America.
Photo by Capt. Tommy Moore, owner and operator of Rockport Adventures
Rockport Adventures offers whooping crane and coastal birding tours throughout the year with experienced knowledgeable guides. Half and Full day trips are available as are private charters. Check the website for details and pricing at www.rockportadventures.com