The day began with good omens: dolphins cavorting in the marina as we prepared the boat, a belted kingfisher perched on a utility line, brown pelicans gliding over the bay. Driving down Highway 183 from Austin to Rockport, I’d seen raptors on the wing. Just before the Copano Bay Causeway: a stilt. Motoring out of the harbor: great blue herons, egrets, gulls, curlews and sandpipers.
My identification abilities were augmented by my host and captain, Aaron Reed, of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
Headed out toward Blackjack Peninsula, we saw roseate spoonbills, ibis, anhingas, ducks, terns, skimmers, plovers and American oystercatchers on the salt flats and spoil islands. Various species of hawk scoured the dunes and salt marshes. An eared grebe shadowed us-a small diving bird with a black face, a tall crest and comical red eyes. In a little cove on Cedar Bayou, we encountered a tricolored heron, a reddish egret and a large, white morph reddish egret.
These were all good sightings, but we had come to see Grus americana, the whooping crane. I like to call them whoopers.
With its crimson-and-black mask, daggerlike beak and slender form, the whooper would be a stunning sight even if it weren’t tall enough to peck out your eyes. The largest adults stand 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of over 7 feet.
They spend winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,500-mile trek from their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. They arrive in time for Thanksgiving and depart around Easter. They live up to 24 years in the wild. I’ve been coming to see them in Aransas for more than a decade.
The Aransas whooping cranes, the only wild, migrating flock in the world, numbered 266 this spring. That’s not a lot, but considering how close the birds came to extinction-there were only 21 left in 1941-the number amounts to a small miracle.
These birds are more than just a symbol of hope and possibility. They’re also an economic boon to the Rockport-Fulton region. Bird-watching is one of the fastest-growing tourist activities in the country, and the Aransas area has become a hot spot for birders, who pump millions of dollars into local economies for a chance to see North America’s tallest flying bird. Birders come from 50 countries to view the cranes and other wildlife at the Aransas refuge and other preserves and trails. They take boat tours and go fishing, or they just hang out with their toes in the sand.
With our grebe escort keeping one red eye on our boat, we had our first whooper sighting: an adult pair in the salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) a good distance away. A few minutes later, I was trying to focus my binoculars on a family of three even further afield when someone pointed out a couple, male and female, no more than 20 yards off our port side. Tall, regal, magnificent.
A hush fell over the boat. I don’t know what other people think about when they watch whooping cranes in their native habitat, but I relish the stillness of the moment. I feel connected to the world in a way I never do when I’m updating my Facebook status.
Biologists have long pointed out that this flock could be wiped out by an oil spill or other moderate catastrophe, man-made or natural. Efforts to establish migrating flocks in other parts of the country have met some success, but the decimation of the Aransas flock is a dire possibility. Considering that Texas is one of the world’s leading producers of environmental toxins, I sometimes wonder if the whooping crane’s presence here is one of God’s little jokes.
I stopped counting once we’d seen a dozen or so cranes. Several times a pair or a family of three would fly past, affording the chance to shoot a few frames of the birds in their most spectacular form: long necks unfurled, black wingtips extended, skinny feet trailing behind.
We stopped to scavenge the beach at Cedar Bayou, once a natural cut between the Gulf of Mexico and Mesquite Bay. They say the 19th-century pirate Jean Lafitte used the pass to escape the pursuing Spanish. According to legend, Lafitte stashed some of Napoleon’s gold somewhere along the way, possibly down near Port Isabel. Maybe it’s true, but we had already seen the real treasures of the Texas coast.
One of Reed’s most unforgettable crane sightings occurred in 1985, when he spotted more than 20 while he was skiing on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. “I remember quite distinctly,” he says, “because at the time, the flock numbered fewer than 100 birds … which represented a significant percentage of the total whooping crane population left in the world.”
Reed’s father Bob, despite having grown up in Rockport and lived in the area for 30 years, was seeing his first whooping cranes ever on our trip. He was reluctant to speak for locals, but Bob suspected there were others in his family who had never had the experience, either. “Surely,” he says, “I wasn’t the only one.”
“You wouldn’t believe how many people around here have never seen them,” says Tom Stehn, a biologist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and a leading expert on whoopers. “Sometimes these things don’t seem like a big deal when they’re in your own back yard.”
We watched as a family of three whoopers suddenly took flight. A coyote lunged from the grass and went loping after them.
Though they’re cautious, a few whoopers fall prey to bobcats and other predators. But it’s primarily habitat loss, not four-legged predators, that has posed the greatest threat to the cranes. In particular, humankind’s nasty habit of draining wetlands and converting wilderness to infrastructure pushed the species to the brink of extinction.
This year drought has taken a grim toll on the Aransas cranes. Fifty-five birds have died in the last 12 months, the first net decrease in the population since 2001. The main reason for the soaring mortality, which works out to 20 percent of the flock, is the scarcity of blue crabs, which normally constitute up to 80 percent of the cranes’ winter diet. Cranes can eat other foods-clams, berries, even wheat-but those secondary food sources have only a fraction of the blue crab’s nutritional value.
Most recent studies have blamed the decline in blue crabs and other marine life in area estuaries on insufficient fresh water from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers flowing into the saltwater of the bay. The diminished flows
destabilize a balance that’s crucial for maintaining coastal marine life. Lack of rainfall is compounded by increasing demand for water by farms, cities and industry. Upstream users are taking water out of the rivers, and many others are taking it from the springs and aquifers that feed the rivers. Millions of gallons of water that support the whooping cranes’ food chain are being used by humans many miles upstream.
There’s a good chance I drank some of it on my drive to Rockport.
In 2007, the Texas Senate created a mechanism for establishing “environmental flows.” Stehn says knowing the flows would lay the groundwork for divvying up water rights among constituencies. It would be nice to think things might work out in favor of the cranes. You don’t have to be a partisan to value wildlife.
Yet even among our boat-bound party of birdwatchers, in which political leanings ranged from liberal (me) to a self-described “ultraright-wing wacko” named Bob, there was a consensus about the birds.
In a water fight pitting whooping cranes against upstream water users, Bob said, “I don’t think there would be any question that the cranes would win. Those birds have got some almighty stroke.”
Indeed, whooping cranes have a distinct advantage over some other endangered creatures-blind salamanders and cave bugs, for example. The big birds tend to inspire loyalty and awe, even affection.
Do yourself a favor: If you’ve never seen the whooping cranes, go see them when they return in the fall, or anytime between then and mid-April. In the interim, get on YouTube and watch video of whooping cranes dancing. Prepare to be amazed and humbled. You’ve got to see these enormous creatures hop, skip, wave and prance. They pick stuff out of the sand with their beaks and toss it into the air like confetti.
The cool thing is that these displays don’t seem to be the standard wing-waving stunts that so many birds use to lure mates. The reasons behind the behavior have never been conclusively established, but to my eye the motivation is obvious: They dance for joy, for the thrill of movement, and because they can.
Jesse Sublett is a writer and musician in Austin.