For decades one of my secret Bucket List items has been to see the critically endangered wild Whooping Cranes.
Back before I hit the 20 year-old mark, I read a book by George Archibald, about his life with these remarkable birds, the largest in North America, and his efforts to help save them from extinction. Since then I have had a rather romantic obsession with the big white bird and have loosely followed the efforts to bring their numbers up.
From a handful, literally – you could count the total number remaining on this earth on both hands – back in the mid-1900s, to an astounding 417+ today, the revitalization of this species has been exciting and unprecedented. While nature has had a roll in the reduction of their numbers, man has had a bigger roll. But now man is playing the roll of hero and helping these birds to not only survive, but to thrive.
For my 60th birthday, The Hubs said to pick any destination I wanted and we’d got there. Scotland? Japan? Iceland? Nope. “Texas, I want to go to Aransas, Texas”. And then I explained it to him. Being a nature-boy he was all for it. Behind my back he found out that Aransas, despite being devastated by Hurricane Harvey the previous fall, was holding their 22nd annual Whooping Crane Festival just before my birthday.
Well, yeehaw! Let’s go!
It took us three days to get there, stopping at a couple of National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) along the way. At those refuges we saw some Roseate Spoonbills and a Crested Caracara (a fascinating looking raptor).
We arrived very late on the 22nd and looked forward to bed.
On Friday, February 23rd we were up very early to make it to the docks for a 7:00am boat tour. The sun was not yet up and there was a heavy fog that had settled in overnight, but that did not deter the handful of Whooping Crane enthusiasts from heading out in the murk in hopes of seeing a few big birds.
Once the boat had entered the Aransas NWR waters we saw our first family of three!
The boat captain managed to get right up to the edge of the grasses and afford us a nice up-close view of the family; mom, dad and kiddo. They were having a grand time of it looking for crabs, crawfish and such for their breakfast. Pressed for time, the captain backed out and we continued deeper into the refuge.
I struck up a conversation with another couple and she loaded me up with other places to see some cranes, out of the way places that many other folks didn’t know about. She also encouraged us to go down to South Padre Island if we found the time because the birding there was phenomenal.
Whoopers, what some of the birders called them, we’re not our only quarry out on the boat. We also saw ducks, osprey, ibis, gulls, egrets, sandpipers, terns and oystercatchers. In all, we saw thirty-six (36!) Whooping Cranes and countless other birds. What a morning!
Once we were off the boat we drove to the Festival’s main location and registered. There were quite a few vendors concentrating on birding, conservation, and of course, cranes. I picked up a ballcap with a crane stitched on it.
After leaving that venue we struck out for Aransas NWR to see what we could spot.
Along the drive up to Aransas NWR we got an eyeful of just how bad the devastation was from Hurricane Harvey. Aransas was ground zero for the hurricane’s landfall. Huge old oaks, losing their fight to stay rooted for another century were laying down. Mountains of debris was piled up along Hwy. 35’s median. Roofs were gone and buildings and businesses were abandoned. It looked more like a tornado had swept through this place.
But the people of Aransas are tough and they are notbletting this getbthem down. They are climbing back up out of this mess and I feel sure this area will came back stronger than before.
Nature too, is resilient. The cranes are proof of this. They are back and seem to be flourishing. Other migratory birds are back too, and along with the year-round residents, are proving that you can knock these animals back, but you cannot knock them down.
We checked in at the NWR’s office and The Hubs asked about the possibility of seeing armadillos. The clerk said they had a resident armadillo they called “Army”, but she didn’t see him out there right now.
We drove the 9 mile loop, keeping out eyes pealed for anything of interest. The Hubs spotted a Javalina, and we both saw some deer and a few hawks, coots and teals, but not much else. It was not the best time of day to go looking for wildlife. Disappointed, we headed back out and the Hubs, on a whim, swung back into the parking lot at the Visitor Center. We were rewarded by the sight of my first wild armadillo! “Army” was right where that clerk told us he normally would be, gobbling up ants and bugs. He was almost cute.
We watched him for awhile, took a bathroom break in the nearby port-a-johns, then headed back to Port Aransas.