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Protecting Whooping Cranes At The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

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The Ultimate Snowbirds: Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Protecting 115,000 Acres Of Brackish Marsh And Prairie, And Has Been Named A Globally Important Bird Area By The Audubon Society

Whooping Cranes In The Sky

Whooping cranes, standing five feet tall, with an average wingspan of seven feet, are the tallest North American bird and one of the most magnificent, with snowy white feathers, black wingtips and red head patches. Tens of thousands once migrated across the continent, but by the 1940s they were nearly extinct. The story of their rescue and repopulation is one of the most captivating of modern conservation efforts.

“In 1941, there were just 15 birds left in the wild,” says Laura Bonneau, visitor services manager at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. “Last year, the flock here was estimated to number 329 birds!”

Located on the Blackjack Peninsula between Aransas and San Antonio bays, the refuge protects 115,000 acres of brackish marsh and prairie, and been named a Globally Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. Whooping cranes are named for their trumpeting call, which can be heard two miles away across the marsh.

According to Bonneau, who has been fascinated by the species since childhood, the whooping cranes at Aransas migrate each fall from their summer breeding grounds at Wood-Buffalo National Park in Canada and begin to arrive in Texas in October. “Aransas NWR and surrounding areas are the wintering grounds of the only wild flock of whooping cranes left in the world,” she says. “The birds spend their winter in the coastal marshes, eating blue crabs, wolfberries, crayfish, frogs, and large insects.”

The last survivors of the breed, just 15 birds, with only four females of nesting age, were discovered at Aransas in 1941. The refuge had been established in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an "inviolate sanctuary" for migratory birds and other wildlife, although he had ducks and geese in mind.

Bird Man [Courtesy/Aransas NWR]
Roseate Spoonbill Flock [Courtesy/Rockport Fulton]
Whooping Cranes In Their Natural Habitat [Courtesy/Rockport Adventures]

The whoopers, as they are called by bird enthusiasts, mate for life and typically hatch one chick a year. During their migrations, they face many dangers, including hunters, power lines, predators such as bobcats, disappearing wetland habitats, and - most recently - wind farms. Those who successfully complete the trip to Texas then contend with increased salinity caused by rising sea levels as well as drought conditions, something that can decimate the blue crabs that are the whoopers primary food.

“Habitat conservation is most important,” Bonneau tells The Buzz. “We've recently been working on outreach to local hunt lodges and hunting guides to educate them about the refuge and whooping crane conservation.” Whoopers are often mistaken for sandhill cranes by hunters, who are responsible for one in five whooper deaths, according to the International Crane Foundation.

The whooping cranes have many fans who come from around the world to see the birds at Aransas. “I am consistently blown away by the distance that people will travel to see the whooping cranes,” Laura Bonneau says. “On any given day, we may have visitors from Russia, The Netherlands, England, Canada, or Australia, as well as from all over the U.S.  Locals are very proud of the refuge, as well. The Texas Whooper Watch is a group dedicated to preserving the cranes.”

Conservationists from many organizations, including the International Crane Foundation, the Whooping Cranes Eastern Partnership, and others, are working to increase the numbers of whooping cranes. They have employed some unusual methods, from using ultralight aircraft to teach young cranes to migrate, to dressing (and dancing) as adult cranes to encourage breeding and help imprint young cranes on their own species. It hasn’t been easy, and most efforts to establish flocks elsewhere have failed. Meanwhile, the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock has seen an increase of about four percent a year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Whooping Cranes In Flight [Courtesy/Aransas NWR]
Bird Watchers [Courtesy/Whooping Crane Festival]
Whooping Crane With Blue Crab [Photo Credit: Martin Cooper]

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, says that Aransas NWR offers several great opportunities to see whoopers up close in publicly accessible areas this winter. “Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough,” he reports. The whooping crane season stretches from October, when the birds begin to arrive, to April, when the cranes take to the sky for the 2,600-mile flight back to Canada. Visitors in early spring may see cranes performing their famous mating dance.

In addition to the viewing options at the refuge, many birders tour the refuge aboard excursion boats that can reach remote areas. Captain Tommy Moore has hosted tours since 2003 aboard his boat The Skimmer, popular with photographers due to its raised upper deck. “We do boat tours twice a day when the whoopers are here, from October through April,” says Moore, who also offers kayak, paddleboard, and golf cart rentalrockports at Rockport Adventures. “Besides whoopers, we typically see 30 to 60 other species during the 3-hour tour, including herons, egrets, pelicans, spoonbills, ospreys and all kinds of shore birds.”

Capt. Moore immortalized the most famous family of whooping cranes in his 2009 children’s book “The Lobstick Prince: A Whooping Crane Story.” The Lobstick Pair, named for the marshes where they nested in summer, were two of the longest lived and most productive couples in whooper history, and many of the cranes living today, both in the wild and in breeding programs, descend from them. The pair raised many chicks, including several rare sets of twins. “The Lobstick Prince” tells the true story of one of their chicks who was bitten by a coppermouth at Aransas. “His head swelled up like a melon,” Moore says, “but the parents stayed with him, feeding him bits of crab, until he could feed himself. He has a distinctive scar, and he’s still around.”

Despite challenges to the habitat, the region around Aransas NWR remains a prime location both for birds and bird lovers. Every February, Port Aransas hosts the Whooping Crane Festival, while nearby Rockport, another birding haven, sponsors an annual hummingbird festival in September. For whooping cranes, and many other feathered species, as well as lots of human snowbirds, the Gulf Coast of Texas remains the winter destination of choice.


Renee Wright

A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.

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