Making winter vacation plans? Need something to do for a long weekend? Pack up the kids and head south for a sight you have probably never seen before, and may never see again. Go searching for the elusive Whooping Cranes.
The highly endangered bird, the largest in North America, spends the winter in South Texas. The best place to see them is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, north of Corpus Christi, and along the tidal marshes of Matagorda Island.
The Texas crane population numbers 308 (Feb. 2015 count), from a low point of only 16 back in the 1940’s. Strict conservation measures in the U.S. and Canada have brought the flock back from near extinction. A second flock in Florida brings the total crane population to over 500 birds.
There are observation towers at the wildlife refuge that may offer you a glimpse of the whoopers. Bring binoculars and cameras with super telephoto lens. I spotted four birds on the Auto Loop trail. They flew past so fast I couldn’t get the car stopped and my camera out in time for a picture. But take my word for it; they were beautiful and a marvel to see.
The most promising way to see the whoopers is by boat. Several excursion boats offer trips in the coastal waterway that take you into prime whooper habitat. “The Skimmer” is a shallow draft boat that pulls you up into the shallows where the birds are hunting for blue crab. The larger “Wharf Cat” holds more people and can also get you within telephoto distance of the birds. “The Jack Flash” is a boat that offers longer 6-hour trips, and is primarily chartered to photographers. Check the websites for schedules and prices. All of the boats are based in the Rockport-Fulton area.
A perfect time to visit is in the winter. Whoopers migrate from Canada, usually beginning in November. They stay in south Texas until spring. By late April, early May they are all gone for another year.
The flock is closely monitored in Texas by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dr. Wade Harrell is the Whooping Crane Recovery director. He says coastal marshlands offer the best chance to view the birds this winter.
“I’d say that our wintering habitat here on the coast looks extremely good, with lots of water on the landscape, both from abundant rainfall and unusually high tides.” The cranes make “consistent use of coastal marsh habitat with less use of upland habitats. This is typically what we see in “good” winters, i.e. indication that abundant food sources are available in the marsh.”
Check the Refuge Facebook page for the latest updates and schedules for bus tours.
The town of Port Aransas is located somewhat south of whooper habitat, but is the home of the annual “Whooping Crane Festival” in February, which draws thousands of visitors every year. You won’t see any whoopers at the festival but you will be able to mingle with birders from around the country and even international visitors.
If you plan on camping, the Goose Island State Park is the closest campground to whooper territory. The park offers campsites in the wooded area, and along the bayfront beach on Aransas Bay. The bayfront sites are primarily used by RV’s, while the wooded area is best for tent camping.
The Big Tree is worth a little of your time too. It’s a giant Live Oak that is over a thousand years old, and measures more than 35 feet in circumference. It is one of the oldest and largest Live Oaks in the country.
Even if you don’t see whoopers, there’s plenty of wildlife. I spotted wild Javelina hogs, deer, an alligator, blue heron, and countless sea birds.
The trip from North Texas is a long drive, about 400 miles. It takes about eight hours, but if you get to see the whoopers it’s worth it.