Abundant Cranes and Endangered Cranes
Seems as though everything is trying to get in the way of birding and in the way of life. First it was COVID (still is, by the way, in case you’ve lost track), and then the big Texas storm some folks here are calling SNOVID.
Steve and I had planned to go to Rockport, Texas and to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the endangered Whooping Cranes on their wintering grounds and then that winter storm in Texas happened. We couldn’t get out of Central Texas. Rockport, our destination, and the surrounding area was on boil water notice and electricity was scarce and, well, everything was a mess.
Pushing everything a week later seemed to be the best solution and both the hotel and boat company that takes people out to see the Whooping Cranes were happy to have us put everything off for another week.
Steve and I have not ventured out much this past year with COVID wreaking havoc on the planet. We’ve mostly kept to our bubble here at home with the occasional field trip to a nearby Texas State Park for a hike (reservations required, by the way, even if just to hang out during the day). We don’t eat inside restaurants and most of the time we order groceries and pick them up curbside. I don’t say this to be judgy or as part of some sort of virtue signaling. It’s just that we’re both in a situation where it would be disastrous for either of us if we got COVID. So disastrous that we actually got our act together and did the morbid task of hiring an estate lawyer to draft our wills. I’m happy to announce that as of January we finally have our Last Wills and Testaments in place.
But we’re not ready to exercise those wills yet, and we’re relieved we got our first COVID vaccination a few weeks ago, so I feel like we’re going to be climbing out of this.
If Rockport sounds familiar, it’s because it was in the news back in 2017 when it took the biggest beating from Hurricane Harvey. It just pummeled Rockport. Three and a half years later you can see that it’s come back a long ways with new brightly colored siding on nearly every structure, and it was nice seeing some of our favorite restaurants still standing and operational, even if we weren’t going to go inside any of them. Imagine going through a major hurricane that pretty much flattens your town and then a couple years later your business is really challenged with COVID.
We stayed at the Inn at Fulton Harbor, which feels very new–the mattresses were fantastic, walls freshly painted, new siding, and overall very comfortable. The hurricane certainly forced a renovation on the place and we were happy with the results. And during COVID you just call in your breakfast order and they will have packed it all for you in a brown bag to pick up the next morning. They make it easy to keep a good distance from one another and not have a lot of interaction. (We weren’t comped anything for this trip. I’m just happy to give a good review for good service and these businesses could use a good word from people during these times.)
On our way to Aransas NWR for our first morning, we passed by black fields, recently groomed and tilled. These will be cotton fields and come late summer through early fall, the black earth will have sprouted up low shrubs, covered with white cotton bolls, ready to be harvested. We call this Texas Snow and pretty much the only snow I ever want to see again here in Texas. But right now, all the big square fields were laid out like black tiles next to fields with coastal prairie grass where a group of Sandhill Cranes were meandering through.
With all due respect to the Sandhill Crane, which is the most abundant crane in the world with a total population of around 650,000, our trip was centered around seeing the most rare of cranes–the Whooping Crane.
“Hey be careful on that path over there,” a man said to us as we began our walk on the trail. “There’s a big 12 or 14 foot alligator right in the middle of the path.”
Good gravy. Let’s not go on that path, I thought. I was happy to stand on the overlook and watch the alligators from a distance.
Steve wasn’t having any of my reluctance. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go. You’ll be fine.”
“Aren’t you worried,” I asked.
“No. I can run faster than you,” he deadpanned. That’s his go-to answer to me anytime, anywhere. While scuba diving and I’m worried about sharks it’s “I can swim faster than you.” Same joke, different verse.
Great Egrets flew back and forth like traffic in the sky. This one had his own literal birds-eye view of the refuge.
This Common Moorhen (previously known as Common Gallinule) was calling out for at least 10 minutes on this stump, clearly defending his territory.
Even White-tailed Deer seemed interested in seeing people around, stopping for a look and then looking over their shoulders at us as they moved on across the marsh.
The following morning we met our boat captain right across the street from our hotel. He took us through the Intercostal Waterway to dredged islands where the Whooping Cranes spend their winter fattening up on blue crabs. Our captain, who was also a biologist at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi explained that so far it looked like the birds mostly survived the blast of winter that plowed through Texas. The fish, however, didn’t fare as well, due to the shallow waters, and there were many dead fish laying along the shoreline, which made for a particularly smelly trip out on the water.
There are several areas in the U.S. where Whooping Cranes winter and where they’re protected, since they are endangered. Through population reintroduction programs there are two other wintering sites in the US–one in Louisiana and another in Florida. Having more than one area helps to assure that the populations don’t get completely wiped out if there was some sort of disaster (weather incident, petroleum spill or otherwise).
This group of Whooping Cranes will be leaving in the next couple of weeks to head north to Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta Canada to begin nesting. They’ll return to Texas in November. The latest numbers calculated for this particular population that goes between Texas and Alberta is about 500 according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This marks a great conservation victory considering that in the 1940s there were only 14 Whooping Cranes in the entire world. All of the Whopping Cranes in the world today are descendants of those 14 cranes.
Finding birds like this gives me hope during times when all seems lost. Whether it’s being wiped out by a hurricane, having a destructive winter storm blast the southern states or a rampant virus kill and sicken millions of people in the world in one year, stories like this tell me that we can indeed begin to recover extraordinarily.