In early December, I drove to Rockport, Texas. Mission: to visit Whooping Cranes in their winter home.
I met Captain Kevin Sims the next morning, just before sunrise, and we headed out on Aransas Bay towards the marsh and the cranes.
The Whooping Crane is one of the most endangered bird species in North America. At their low point in 1941, there were only 15 birds. Extinction seemed certain. In 2015, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the count now stands at 635 (329 birds in the Aransas/Wood-Buffalo flock, 145 in other re-introduced populations, and 161 in captivity).
They are the tallest birds in North America, standing approximately 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of 7.5 feet, but they are very light — just 15 pounds.
After a chilly ride across the bay, we were rewarded with the sight of a Whooping Crane family. The cranes have a 20 – 25 year lifespan. They mate for life, and each year lay two eggs; typically only one chick will survive, and will then spend a year with its parents.
It was an extraordinary morning. We spent six hours on the marshes and photographed three different groups of Whooping Cranes, and saw even more at a distance. While Whoopers are the big stars, there were so many other birds — too many to count. I saw Roseate Spoonbills, a variety of herons, Crested Cara Cara, Curlews, Cormorants, American Oyster Catchers, Sanderlings, Osprey, White Pelicans, White Ibis, Brown Pelicans, and Avocets.
Two Days on the Bays
I loved my time in Rockport: two sunny days on the water surrounded by birds and dolphins. This was my first serious attempt to photograph birds — definitely the toughest subject I’ve ever tried. I enjoyed the challenge, and it provided a great opportunity to practice with my Tamron 150-600 mm lens -which I’d bought in August before heading to Alaska (Inside Passage, Alaska — Minus the Cruise Ship).
In addition to my morning excursion to see the Whooping Cranes, I went out for a afternoon trip out of Conn Brown Harbor for dolphins, other birds, and a great sunset near the light house.
Brown Pelicans and dolphins were the highlight of my afternoon boat trip. I love pelicans — such strange birds. The Brown Pelicans are so prolific now that it’s hard to believe that we came close to losing these amazing creatures. In the late 19th century, hat makers prized pelican feathers — so hunters slaughtered them by the thousands to supply the millinery trade. In the 1960’s DDT nearly finished the job — pushing the Brown Pelican population to the brink; the Louisiana population was completely wiped out. Through protection and conservation, the Brown Pelican rebounded. They were taken off of the Endangered Species list in 2009. It’s truly a success story.
Great Weekend Get-a-Way from Houston, Austin, or San Antonio
Rockport is just a three hour drive from either Houston or Austin, and a little over two hours from San Antonio, which makes it a great, inexpensive weekend get-a-way for people looking to get out of the city. There are a number of local motels, in addition to a few national hotel chains; winter prices range from $50 – $115 a night.
I stayed at the Harbour Inn, which was newly renovated, very clean, with a good bed, but bare-bones basic. No amenities, not even soap, and no lamps — only harsh, overhead lights. But hey, it was fifty bucks a night. The light thing is a problem for me – harsh glare is a migraine headache trigger, so I’ll try somewhere else on my next visit.
I did my Whooping Crane tour and afternoon sunset trip with Aransas Bay Adventures, which is owned by a husband and wife team: Captains Kevin and Lori Sims. I had such a wonderful time with these folks — both of them are personable and friendly, and they know so much about the bays, birds, and dolphins.In addition to birding, photography, and dolphin tours, they also do bay fishing trips and photography workshops. I liked the heck out of both of them, and I look forward to returning soon.
Whooping Cranes live in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge November through March before migrating to the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada.
I plan to return during the rookery season, when many birds (not the cranes — their breeding site is in Canada) are building nests and taking care of their young — this happens from March through May.
You can look forward to great seafood during your stay in Rockport. I ate at Latitude 28°02′ Restaurant and Art Gallery and Paradise Key Dockside Bar & Grill, and look forward to going back to both. Paradise Key: great fried oysters and crab cakes. Latitude 28°02′ is a bit higher end — loved the local art, and I thought the food was wonderful. I’m getting hungry just thinking about my dinner there . . .
In North America, the only birds in greater danger of extinction than the Whooping Cranes are the Ivory Billed Woodpecker and the California Condor.
If you live in Texas and love birds, you need to plan a trip to see our winter guests!
I grew up in Mississippi and New Orleans, have lived in both Seattle and Manhattan, and finally moved back to Texas in 1990’s.
I have a darling teenage daughter who heads off to university in the fall of 2017. I have been divorced and am now widowed. Finally, I am a colon cancer survivor.
I am now writing and traveling full time — what a wonderful thing!
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Follow these links for additional information on Whooping Cranes
America’s Top Ten Most Endangered Birds. Rep. National Audubon Society, Mar. 2006. Web. 8 Jan. 2017.
“Home – Aransas – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” Home – Aransas – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Jan. 2017. Current Whooping Crane Updates
Times-Picayune, Christine Harvey The. “Brown pelican comes back from the brink of extinction.” NOLA.com. N.p., 11 Nov. 2009. Web. 08 Jan. 2017.
Whooping Crane Recovery Activities Report: October 2016. Rep. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oct. 2016. Web. 8 Jan. 2017.