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Its Coming - Port Aransas and the Whooping Crane Festival

Updated on January 31, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Port Aransas

A markerPort Aransas, Texas -
Port Aransas, TX, USA
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New Birding Trip

Port Aransas is located in the Central flyway on the Coastal Plain area of Texas. It is along the most southern range on the Whooping Crane’s migrations route in the U.S. If I want to see Whooping Cranes in Texas, this is the place all the books say to go.

Within close range to Port Aransas are

  1. Mustang Island State Park
  2. Goose Island State Park
  3. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)

Sounded like the place to be to me.

The Whooping Crane Festival is at Port Aransas. It is a small coastal town on the barrier islands. In Winter, the town is a touristy haven for snowbirds from the north and weekend travelers around the state. Its coastal views, both on land and sea are well worth the visit.

The Whooping Crane Festival falls on the last weekend in February every year. It is best to go online and register for this event as some of the tours fill up fast. Several things I would have loved to attend were full before I registered. Booking hotels could be difficult too, but my husband and I were able to get a nice efficiency room at a good price.

Activities during the four day long festival included Boat and Van tours, a trade show, speakers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute and workshops and other activities at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Wetlands Education Center.

Whooping Crane Facts

Length 59.1 in

Wingspan 90.2 in

Weight 211.6–275.1 oz

Life Span 22 to 24 years in the wild

Arrival

Last year, we drove up on a Thursday morning from Houston, arriving at 10 a.m. The volunteers at the Civic Center were very helpful when we arrived to pick up our registration packets. They had maps, local information on dining, area businesses and maps of all the birding sights to visit on island. Our first activity was to be at 2 p.m., a boating tour, so we headed out to Mustang Island State Park to start looking for birds.

Western Sandpiper on Mustang Island

Source

Mustang Island

The beach walk was beautiful. The weather was overcast, but the sun came out about halfway through our walk. The sand was sugar white. The beach was littered sand dollars, little seashells and little else. The first birds to greet us were Savannah Sparrows and Ring-billed Gulls.

It was too early for the spring sunbathing season, so the beach was only sparsely populated with other people strolling and a few people fishing along the jetty to the north. Brown Pelicans flew by, also heading to the jetty and in the surf we caught Willets and Western Sandpipers working the shallows. No Whooping Cranes showed up, so we went back to Port Aransas for lunch.

Friends on the Beach

American White Pelican and Avocets
American White Pelican and Avocets | Source

Boat Touring

A short walk took us to Woody’s and our boat tour. We shipped out on the ‘Mustang II’ a 65’ double deck pontoon boat. The tour included a trip out to St. Jose Island, the Port Aransas Jetties and the Aransas Pass Lighthouse. If you go to see this Texas historic lighthouse, you can thank Charles Butt, president of the H-E-B grocery store chain, who purchased the property in 1973. Mr. Butt oversaw the restoration of the tower and outbuildings and putting light keepers on duty again.

During the tour, both Brown and White Pelicans were plentiful along with Cormorants, Avocets, Terns and Gulls. Besides the birds, we also were treated to what was below water. Bottle-nosed dolphins played around the boat everywhere we went. A net was also cast to show us more. Puffer fish, sea horses, crabs, small squids and seashells with their inhabitants were placed in a temporary viewing aquarium. The trip was a pleasure, but no Whooping Cranes.

“Where are the Whooping Cranes,” I asked one of the guides? He smiled.

“All the Whooping Cranes are in Rockport,” he reported.

Dining at Moby Dick’s

That night we planned our trip to Rockport and other mainland birding areas over dinner at Moby Dick’s. This was a recommendation by several people, including a regular winter visitor from Illinois waiting for the snow to melt. Everyone said the steaks and seafood were great.

This restaurant had a tourist trap feel to it. The décor reminded me of Jimmy Buffet songs. Actually, Cheeseburger in Paradise played shortly after we arrived. The impression was cemented by the gift shop that operated to the side which sold shirts and jackets, shells and nautical toys and crafts.

We started off with drinks at the bar. The bartender had a good repartee of mixed drinks including fuzzy navels and mimosas. The 1960s and 70s reggae music, turned up loud to simulate live bands kind of put one in the mood for it.

We appeared to have arrived for dinner late. The main dining-room was packed; so our table was not there, but to the back of the bar area. We started with a half-pound of generous sized chilled shrimp, chopped garden salads, and then had steaks for our entrees. The recommendations were right. The steaks were cooked perfectly and the baked potatoes were scrumptious. If there had been room, I saw key lime pie and turtle cheesecake, but my tummy was in bliss already. We bought some gifts for the kids and headed back to the hotel for much needed rest.

Searching on the Mainland

Birding the Island interior can be as much fun as the boat tours. Some of the hot spots are The Port Aransas Nature Preserve, Wetland Park, the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, the Wetlands Educational Center.

The Turnbull Birding Center walk begins beside a fenced-in water treatment plant. The walk moves through thick tree cover that tends to be a warbler magnet. Look for Marsh Wrens, White-eyed Vireo, rare visiting Hummingbirds such as Black-chins, Anna’s and Rufus Hummingbirds. Further down the wheelchair accessible boardwalk, we walked into a marsh where Northern Pintails, Green and Blue-winged Teals and Red-breasted Maganzers and other ducks are common. Shore birds common in February include Black-bellied Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Sandlings among others. See the checklist for Port Aransas here.

The Nature Preserve at Charlie’s Pasture is a large area that includes many nature trails, boardwalks and chances to see various natural settings including Algal flats. The board walks lead to covered viewing areas, an observation tower and observation decks. I found my first Redish Egret there. Seaside and LeConte’s Sparrows, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Northern Gannets are available in winter too.

Whooping Cranes are seen in small groups this time of year, six to eight at best. We were coming to understand the difficulty of finding these rare birds as we talked with others. Bright and early, we used directions offered by previously successful birders. North of Goose Island State Park is a post oak forest where the Texas State Grand Champion Live Oak Tree (12st and Lamar Beach Road).

The Big Tree

Texas Grand Champion Live Oak Tree
Texas Grand Champion Live Oak Tree | Source

Champion Tree Facts

• 11 feet across the trunk

• 35 feet around

• 44 feet tall

• 89 feet across the crown

• 1000 years old.

This tree was already 500 years old when the first Spanish Explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda explored Aransas Bay.

Whooping Cranes

Two Whooping Cranes in a field.
Two Whooping Cranes in a field. | Source

We found a group of Whooping Cranes along with Sandhill Cranes further down at 8th street and Lamar Beach Road. Both Crane species are skittish. They want a wide berth, so we were obliged by the birds and the private property fencing to keep back. Even so, the ability to see these cranes in Texas is a treat.

Since the 1940s, when the birds numbered about 15, they have made a comeback to about 600 individuals. Their increases have been hard won. Whooping Cranes only have one to three chicks per year. Rarely do you see more than one with its parents. It takes these birds five years to reach maturity. Conservation efforts have included habitat management, captive breeding, and leading birds along migration routes with ultralight aircraft.

Such imprinting trips, teaching birds born in captivity the migration route, was shown in Columbia Pictures film “Fly Away Home.” Whooping Cranes are still listed as endangered. They were on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.

Aransas NWR Birds

Pie-billed Grebe at the Heron Flats
Pie-billed Grebe at the Heron Flats | Source
Little Blue Heron in Flight
Little Blue Heron in Flight | Source
Eastern Phebe
Eastern Phebe | Source
Willet group foraging on the mud flats
Willet group foraging on the mud flats | Source

Aransas NWR

After finding the Whooping Cranes, we still had a whole day of birding to enjoy. We headed north to Aransas NWR where we hoped to find more. The Refuge’s nature center had two greeters on duty who were great helpers in our quest and were excited to hear we had seen both a Crested Caracara and an Osprey on our way in.

This park as an extensive auto touring route was well as many walking paths. The main road runs from the Nature Center to the Observation Tower with another 16 miles of auto tour roads beyond that.

Our first stop was the Heron Flats. The two mile walk runs along ponds, reed beds and mud flats. There was no shortage of birds. On the trail head pond, we found several Pie-billed Grebes and a 12’ gator. Further into chain of ponds we found a little blue heron foraging.

To our right going in were the mud flats. There were all manner of shore birds out foraging. We caught sight of Black-bellied Plovers still in winter plumage, groups of Willets, American Oyster Catchers, Snowy Egrets and Foster’s Terns doing aerial ballet. Off in the distance were Roseatte Spoonbills, Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons and one lone Whooping Crane heading down the coast to Rockport just as we started down the trail.

In the brush along the trail, the perching birds would dart in and out of sight. Among those were Cardinals, Mockingbirds and Eastern Phebes. Being winter, the count for passerines was low, but in another month, there will be a variety of warblers, vireos and other birds as the spring migrants return.

At the far end of the auto tour drive was the observation tower, just beyond the fishing pier. There are two towers; one short one behind the larger and taller. Both offer great views, but the higher one goes well above the treetops giving a view of the whole region. In winter, Whooping cranes can usually be seen on the mud flats below, but not today. The wind was picking up and the clouds were rolling in on us.

The only birds we saw in the area was a kestrel that surprised me heading back from the lower observation deck and a small flock of redhead ducks weathering the choppy waves around the fishing pier. As time was now running short, we had to leave, dropping off our sightings at the nature center on the way. They had a board to give location tips to other visiting birders.

Evening Boating Tour

Avocet pair - the redish head feathers indicate a male coming into mating colors
Avocet pair - the redish head feathers indicate a male coming into mating colors | Source
Redhead Ducks and a shore bird
Redhead Ducks and a shore bird | Source
American White Pelican skimming the water
American White Pelican skimming the water | Source
Gull harassing a Brown Pelican
Gull harassing a Brown Pelican | Source
Great Blue Heron near sunset
Great Blue Heron near sunset | Source
Mixed Flock of Shore Birds
Mixed Flock of Shore Birds | Source
Osprey carrying a small snack into the sunset
Osprey carrying a small snack into the sunset | Source

Photographer’s Boating Tour

At 4 p.m. I took in my last birding trip, a three hour guided boat tour led by local professional wildlife photographer Larry Ditto. We were afraid the trip might be cancelled due to weather, but we left the light rain and heavy winds behind on the mainland. The port was much calmer. Moving from person to person, Larry talked about the area birds, different fine points of photographing from a moving boat, and choosing between manual and aperture mode for birding and keeping aware of your light conditions so compensations can be made as the daylight waned.

This turned out to the highlight of my trip. The longer trip allowed a greater variety of areas to see. The first leg headed back toward the lighthouse where we saw all the birds mentioned from the earlier trip plus close up looks at Redhead ducks and a Belted Kingfisher. The afternoon time frame must have been best for some species, because we saw at least four ospreys at dinner, and were treated to the pelicans hunting.

Pelicans have an interesting hunting pattern. They fly slowly over the water and then make a controlled stall and drop head first into the water in a spectacular splash-down. As the spray cleared, I saw the pelican with his head still underwater, apparently securing his catch before rising. The reason for this was apparent after watching for a while. The gulls, notorious fish thieves, were watching the pelicans as intently as we were. When the bigger birds made their splash landings, the gulls moved in and hovered like kites on the wind. While the pelicans had their head underwater, gulls would move in and actually stand on the pelicans backs trying to harass them into giving up a meal. I didn’t see any gulls succeeding, but the entertainment value seeing such inventive displays was priceless.

As the light fell, we entered shallow areas where many shorebirds were bedding down for the night. Several types of Terns, Cormorants, American Oystercatchers, Heron groups and others were gathering in flocks. We saw mixed groups standing in the water that consisted of Willets, Dunlins, Marbled Godwits and Western and Stilted Sandpipers.

Yet, all good things must in time end. The trip came to a close as the sun went down giving us a view of the Texas Coast’s famous golden sunset. An osprey was at hand to take it in with us and offer one last view of avian grace flying into the distant bright colored sky.

New Life List Birds

Bird
Location or Tour
Female Greater Scaup
Aransas NWR
Redhead Ducks
Aransas NWR and Photographer's Tour
Caspian Tern
Photographer's Tour
Avocets
Both Boating Tours
Black-bellied Plovers
Aransas NWR
Marbled Godwits
Photographer's Tour
American Oystercatchers
Aransas NWR and Photographer's Tour
Stilted Sandpiper
Photographer's Tour
Western Sandpiper
Mustang Island
Dunlins
Photographer's Tour
Little Blue Heron
Aransas NWR

The Final Word

I plan to do this trip again, both at Whooping Crane Festival time and off festival. There was so much I didn’t get to do this trip, but next time, I will set aside more time do Aransas County at a much slower island friendly pace.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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