From November to March more than 500 Whooping Cranes, North America’s tallest bird, call the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the surrounding area their winter home.

Classified as an endangered species in 1967, the wild flock numbered only 15 in the 1940s. The current population is close to 600. A whooping crane pair will mate for life. Each year, pairs or families of Whoopers make their way from the marshes of Southern Canada and the Northern U.S. traveling more than 2,500 miles to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Nesting in the ANWR, 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 whooping crane, providing blue crabs, which is the number one food source for the whooping crane, along with an abundance of wolfberries and other food sources. Standing more than five foot tall, with a seven-foot wingspan, the majestic whooping crane is the tallest North American bird.

Land viewing of the birds can be done at the ANWR, recently named the number one “Best place for birding in the United States” according to USA Today’s 10 Best. Located about 40 minutes from the Rockport-Fulton, the ANWR is a major attraction for the area.

The International Crane Foundation now houses an office in Rockport. Senior Whooping Crane Scientist Dr. Liz Smith and her colleagues operate the Texas Program/

“One of the primary goals of the Texas Program is protecting the coastal habitat for wintering whooping cranes, which is critical for the species,” said Dr. Smith. “There are quite a few other animals who make use of this habitat too, including a lot of herons, sandhill cranes, wild hogs, and alligators.”

Captain Tommy Moore, who operates a tour boat out of Fulton Harbor, said, “We had a late migration this year. The first birds were noted Nov. 8. It was reported that a record number of whooping cranes made a stopover on the Platt River in central Nebraska.”

He said five or six pairs have already been seen this season, and it’s not uncommon to see 10 to 15 pairs once the season is in full force.

“Of the birds we are seeing this season, we are seeing a lot of babies, with varying degrees of adult plumage,” said Moore.

Other migrating birds, including a bald eagle, have also made their way into the area. Others spotted are oystercatchers, American white pelicans, egrets, and rosette spoonbills.

Moore said he is making trips to the ANWR through the end of March.

“We are excited to see the increased numbers of avid birders coming in this year. We are looking forward to a great season,” he said.

Some professional fishing guides also offer birding boat tours by appointment.

For a list of these operators or for more information about birding, visit www.rockport-fulton.org or call the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center at (361) 729-6445.

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