Up Close with Whooping Cranes

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Whooping Crane in Flight – photo by H. Valey © 2018

Fulton is just outside of Rockport TX, the place that got hardest hit during Hurricane Harvey last summer.  You could still see the signs of the storm.  Tarped roofs and piles of gathered debris were evident pretty much on every street we traveled in Rockport & Fulton.

When we got to the marina, still more signs of storm recovery.  Bait sho

ps and restaurants were being rebuilt and everything had a very weathered look about it.  No doubt it will take them a while to recover.

We found our boat, the “Skimmer” and the Captain on the dock and headed out into the bay toward the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.  Captain Tommy knew his birds and was very good about calling out everything he could see as we glided along toward the refuge.  They also supplied a nice Nikon spotting scope for communal use and binoculars to passengers who didn’t have any.

Lots of Double Crested Cormorants, Black Skimmers, Least Sandpipers, Blue Herons, Egrets and Pelicans were spied on our way.

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But anway… Whooping Cranes! That was the purpose of this trip… So… Whooping Cranes, a brief overview:  They are an endangered species due to habitat loss and over-hunting. There is really only one naturally occurring population of these birds of about only 400 individuals. The population fell to only 15 individuals in 1940s. They come to Aransas Wildlife Refuge in the Texas Gulf each winter to fish for blue crab in the coastal marshes and estuaries.  In the spring they head up to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada for breeding season.   They are big birds, the tallest bird in North America in fact.  They are white with a black wing tips and a red mark on their face above their beak. They are monogamous and have two chicks each year.  Unfortunately the strongest chick always kills the weakest chick.  I guess the whole point of 2 babies is just an insurance plan to make sure at least one makes it.  It’s a brutal thing to imagine, being pecked to death by your sibling… Ieee! There are a few other bird species who exhibit this type of insurance policy as well. Nature can be brutal.

We were able to spot quite a few Whooping Crane pairs, families & sub-adult groups.  We were lucky to get close enough to a pair to get pictures of one of the Cranes catching a blue crab and taking off into flight.  These tall, lanky birds were actually pretty graceful for all their leggi-ness.  I feel very grateful to have been able to get out and get such a good look at these amazing birds.

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Whooping Crane Pair – photo by H. Valey (c) 2018

While things seem to be looking up for the Whooping Crane populations, they do have some challenges this year.  One is the effects of Hurricane Harvey.  The Cranes eat blue crab in the winter, which is an animal that requires a balance of salt and fresh water mix to survive. The Hurricane brought in more fresh water than normal into the marshes and the brackish mix in the marsh is off., only temporarily though. Scientists are unsure how this will affect the blue crabs this season.

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whooping crane with blue crab – photo by H. Valey (c) 2018

Climate Change has the cranes migrating earlier every year due to warmer temperatures. This puts the flock in danger of getting stuck in the Midwest during a big storm that could kill the flock.

A successful breeding program at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, known for successfully raising about 30 chicks per year has had their funding stopped by the Trump Administration.

Time will tell if the Whooping Crane numbers can rebound long term.

There are ways you can help:

Eco-Tourism assigns value to animals and land that otherwise might not be looked at as valuable.  If you are ever near the Texas Coast in the Winter and want to catch a glimpse of these birds in their natural habitat, (which I highly recommend) book a ride on the “Skimmer” with Captain Tommy and crew.  You can visit their site: Rockport Birding & Kayak Adventures.     Or attend the Whooping Crane Festival in Rockport, TX at the end of this month!

Urge your congressman to get behind the bipartisan “Recovering America’s Wildlife Act” bill.  For more information you can go here. 

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Turkey Vulture at Aransas NWR – photo by H. Valey (c) 2018

 

 

 

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