From November to March each year more than 500 whooping cranes, North America’s tallest bird - more than five feet tall, with a wingspan of seven feet - call the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and surrounding area their winter home. They have been documented to live more than 30 years in the wild.
Aransas County embraces this phenomenon with boat tours and other viewing opportunities, even as it navigates through the COVID-19 crisis.
The wild flock of whooping cranes numbered only 15 in the 1940s, and was classified an endangered species in 1967.
A whooping crane pair will mate for life. Adults generally reach reproductive age at four or five years, and then lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick. Each year, pairs, or families of whoopers, make their way here from the marshes of Southern Canada and the Northern U.S., traveling more than 2,500 miles to the Texas Gulf Coast.
While usually nesting in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, they can be spotted from time to time as far south as Goose Island State Park. The marsh in this area offers an excellent habitat for the cranes, providing blue crabs, which is their number one food source, as well as an abundance of wolfberries and other food sources.
Land viewing of the birds can be accomplished at the ANWR, which USA Today recently named the “Best place for birding in the United States”.
The ANWR is located 30 minutes north of Rockport/Fulton.
The International Crane Foundation houses an office in Rockport. Senior Whooping Crane Scientist Dr. Liz Smith and her colleagues operate the Texas Program.
She said, “One of the primary goals of the Texas Program is protecting the coastal habitat for wintering whooping cranes, which is critical for the species. There are quite a few other animals who make use of this habitat, as well, including lots of herons, sandhill cranes, wild hogs, and alligators.”
Boat birding tours are available at Fulton Harbor aboard Captain Tommy Moore’s “Skimmer”.
Moore said, “The migration is in full swing. The white pelicans have arrived, which is always exciting. We’re seeing lots of duck, ibis, shorebirds, swallows, and other birds making their way south every day.
“While we have only had a couple of cold fronts so far, all of these hurricanes have given us many days of north wind assisting the migration. One pair of whooping cranes stayed over the summer this year, and we are expecting good numbers to start arriving in early November. Conditions have been favorable with plenty of fresh water and blue crabs for them to eat.”
Moore said although some migration has already begun, he officially opens his season Nov. 15.
“We will be scheduling a few trips leading up to that date, so give us a call and we will make some early season trips into the ANWR in the first two weeks of November,” he said.
The trips generally last three hours, with an average 30-60 species of birds and other animals spotted along the way.
Moore went out Nov. 1 and spotted 20-plus whooping cranes.
“It’s going to be a great season,” he said.
Moore’s trips are limited in capacity due to COVID-19 precautions. Social distancing rules apply, hand sanitizer is readily available, and masks are required to enter the boat. The tours are professionally narrated, and binoculars are available for an up-close view.
Scheduled trips continue through the end of March.
Some area professional fishing guides also offer birding boat tours by appointment. For a list of these operators, or for more information about local birding opportunities, visit www.rockport-fulton.org or call the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center at (361) 729-6445.
about the whooping crane
Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed analysis of aerial whooping crane surveys conducted last winter, finding Texas’ wintering population topped the 500 mark for the third year in a row. The survey also recorded dozens of the endangered birds outside of the primary survey area, indicating an expansion of their winter range on the Texas coast.
“While we did not detect growth in the size of the population this past year, we do continue to observe whooping cranes outside of our primary survey area, indicating they continue to expand their winter range,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator Wade Harrell. “We will be adding the Holiday Beach secondary survey area to our primary survey area given we detected enough whooping crane groups there to meet our protocol for inclusion.”
Each fall, once the whooping cranes have arrived, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey the birds by air and analyze population trends.
Winter 2019-20 data analysis indicated 506 whooping cranes, including 39 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on ANWR. This is comparable with the prior winter’s estimate of 504 whooping cranes, indicating the population remained stable and did not experience detectible population growth this year.
Biologists plan to conduct the next survey in January 2021 and will continue marking whooping cranes with telemetry tracking devices as part of an ongoing U.S. and Canadian government joint research project.
Additional information about whooping cranes can be found on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge website http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/.