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DATELINE I ROCKPORT Big Whoop BY JESSE SUBLETT photo by Aaron Reed Mr he 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 usa 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 extinctionthere were only 21 left in 1941the 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 RockportFulton 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. ith 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 altera 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 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 1, 2009