Saturday, December 21, 2013

Whoop it Up!

Recently Jim and I splurged and chartered a boat to go out to see Whooping Cranes. I admit that although we have lived in Texas for almost 35 years and have been visiting the Gulf Coast for almost that long, I only discovered this Texas treasure a year or so ago. Wow! What an experience to see these magnificent

Whooper and egret
Photo by Kevin Sims
Nearly five feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. Their wings span 7.5 feet across. (The photo by Capt. Kevin Sims shows a whooping crane with a great egret for size comparison.) They are white with reddish-rust patches on the top and back of their heads. Black areas on their primary feathers are visible only in flight. But the most amazing thing about them--well, one of the most amazing things--is the migration. These magnificent birds spend the summers in northern Canada and migrate 2,500 miles to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Rockport, TX for the winter. This is the only wild, self-sustaining migratory population of whooping cranes in the world! (There are occasional "vagrants" that show up elsewhere along the Texas coast. One was reported in Brazoria NWR in mid-November and caused quite a stir while he played with the sandhill cranes in the area for a few weeks before moving on.) They migrate during the day, stopping at night, so they may also be seen briefly along the migration route. 

Photo by Jim Larson
By the 1940s the population of whooping cranes had decreased almost to extinction. There were only 15 cranes left when conservationists stepped in to try and save the cranes. A massive effort between the US and Canadian agencies led to captive breeding programs, that, with protection and conservation, have increased the population to about 600, half wild and half captive, in a couple of different locations. All of the whooping cranes alive today are the descendants of the 15 cranes that were found in the Aransas refuge in 1941. From those 15, there are currently two migrating population--the one in Texas and another in Wisconsin--and two small non-migratory populations in Florida and Louisiana.  These birds are highly monitored, and in fact we saw the monitoring plane flying over Aransas National Wildlife Refuge counting cranes during our visit.

The cranes mate for life. Since the female lays 1-3 eggs and generally one chick survives, growth in the population is slow. The juveniles have a cappuccino color to them for about the first year; by the time they
Family of whoopers
head back to Canada, the juveniles are all white. The family unit stays together and requires about one square mile of territory for feeding. They are tolerant of other birds, including herons and egrets, but will fiercely fend off other whoopers. We watched a fight when a pair of whooping cranes got too close to another family unit. They are big and noisy! They survive 25 years in the wild and about ten years longer in captivity.

Visit the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge--from some of the observation areas you can see the whoopers in the distance. Or better yet, take one of the boat trips to get closer. The Jack Flash, owned by Kevin Sims, is smaller and can go right up to the edge of the refuge (we were close enough to hear the calls they make--hear a sample at Cornell's site) but you book the entire boat for up to 6 passengers. The Skimmer, out of Fulton Harbor, is a larger boat but you buy just the seats you need. We took this boat in 2012 towards the end of the whooping bird season so only saw a few. Thanks to all of the conservation efforts, we have the luxury of watching the cranes year after year and I'm looking forward to seeing  them again on our next trip to Rockport.

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