After a long, hot summer and early fall in which I had little time or energy with which to pursue many activities outside of the necessities, in the last few weeks, fall has finally begun in south central Texas. With the belated arrival of cool air, I feel again the compelling urge to get outside and see the sensational sights that nature has to provide. And that, of course, includes getting back to watching birds.
So, a few weeks ago, the B and B team travelled three hours down the road to the central Texas coast, to the Rockport-Fulton area, a renowned birding hotspot north of Corpus Christi. The quality and ease of bird watching there are indeed impressive, even for relative novices like ourselves. Our only previous trip to that area, four years ago, had been the inspiration for us to purchase ourselves a nice pair of binoculars at long last. It pushed us over the edge to being committed, if part-time, birders.
This time, alas, we did not have much time to spendit was a mere overnight trip. But, by luck and circumstance, we found, and were able to splurge on, a very special place to stay. A place that was to give us the opportunity to view whooping cranes for the first timeand not just any viewing opportunity, but an up-close and personal one.
For those who may not be familiar with them, whooping cranes are very tall, very endangered birds. Fifty years ago there were less than two dozen of them left in the wild, all in a single flock that migrated from Wood Buffalo National Park in the wilds of northwestern Canada to a small peninsula on the central Texas coast northeast of Rockportan area that had been preserved in the 1930s as the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Fortunately, thanks to the long, hard work of many, whooping cranes are recovering wellthere are now over 200 cranes in the Aransas flock. Unfortunately, the Aransas flock is still the only established flock, so the birds remain vulnerable to a single catastrophic event. To guard against this, wildlife biologists and others are experimenting with establishing additional flocks: one non-migratory one in central Florida and one migratory one between Wisconsin and Florida.
The vacation house we rented for that night is located on a ranch near some coastal wetlands, a portion of which the owners had recently donated to the Nature Conservancy. The ranch is across a narrow inlet from the peninsula where the vast majority of the Aransas Refuge is located and where the wild flock of whooping cranes spend their winters, each family occupying roughly a square mile. A family of whooping cranes had shown up virtually on the front door of this house in past winters, to eat the corn that had originally been put out to feed white-tailed deer.
Having never seen a whooping cranefor that matter, having never seen any other type of crane beforewe didn't know what to expect. Would they be immediately obvious or not? Our previous visit to Aransas had been in early Octobertoo early to see whoopers. Now, we were visiting in mid-November, when about half the cranes would have arrived at their wintering grounds, but half would still be in transit. With great timing for us, the pair of cranes that claim the territory around this house showed up two days before our trip.
Our arrival was only a couple hours past, when, as we were returning to the house from a short excursion to spot ducks and other water birds along the coastal wetlands, we saw two huge white birds, with black wing tips, swooping in for a landing on the road, just fifty feet or so in front of the house. No field guides were needed for this identification! Alas, the cranes were quicker than us, for we had not yet put out the deer corn as the proprietor had suggested. So the whoopers promptly took off again and headed the short distance back towards the bay.
Taking our cue, we spread a bucket of the corn along the road, then went out again to look for birds in the coastal marshes, identifying several species that we had never before (such as sandhill cranes, green-winged teals, and pied-billed grebes) as well as numerous old favorites (such as great egrets, little blue herons, and some "Mexican eagles", crested caracaras). We even found the pair of whooping cranes, one of which was masking its height by sitting down in a dry, bare spot amidst the grassesperhaps resting from its recent journey from northern Canada.
While we were out, we noticed the whoopers fly low towards the house at least two more times, but not landing either timeinstead circling around and then heading back towards where they had been resting earlier. When we returned to the house, we realized whythe two horses living on the ranch were in the road taking their fill of the deer corn.
Eventually, the horses moved on, and a herd of deer and a family of three sandhill cranestwo adults and one juveniledecided to take over the feeding spot. We settled down in the screened-in porch, a few dozen feet away, to watch. Sandhill cranes were a new species for us as well. They are duskier-colored and shorter than whoopers, though not exactly small themselves.
Before long, the whoopers swooped in again, with their long wingspans dwarfing the small shrubs near the road and attracting the attention of the feeding deer and sandhills. They landed and started moving in towards the feeding area, walking slowly but steadily along the road. As they did, the sandhill cranes retreated, as did most of the deer. The few deer who stubbornly continued feeding soon found themselves being charged, pecked at, and honked at repeatedly by two very large, very loud birds. Needless to say, these stubborn deer didn't stick around for long.
And so we watched quietly for the next hour from inside our comfortable blind, as the two whoopers took turns eating and keeping lookout, trumpeting loudly with their namesake "whoops" whenever any impatient deer tried to sneak back onto the road.
As the sun neared the horizon behind us, the whoopers suddenly faced east together, gracefully lofted themselves into the air, and headed towards the marshes. The three sandhill cranes, who had been waiting patiently a distance away, moved back in to eat. They stayed until well after sunset, kept up late by their deference to their larger cousins. And then they, too, flew off quietly into the approaching night.