All we could see was a singular small white blob of white seemingly meshing in the middle of the “liquid” mass of brownish, grayish sandhill cranes. We were among a growing yet revolving group of birders pulled off on the shoulder along the paved highway south of the Crane Trust headquarters near Wood River, NE, and most, like us, had binoculars and long camera lenses trained on that small patch of white.
Small? Yes, for to the naked eye the white “spot” was roughly the size of a rounded head of a sewing pin. Through our binoculars or my 600 mm lens, the patch was about the size of a pencil eraser. Though surrounded by literally thousands of sandhills, coming and going, it was this one whooping crane that seemed to hold the most interest. This was especially true for my traveling companion, Mary Gafkjen.
Fortunately this wasn’t my first sighting of a whooping crane. Years ago an organic farmer friend who I had featured in a story for Money Magazine loaded me into his pickup to drive to the edge of a dry gulch on his San Luis Valley (CO) farm. Our goal was to sneak up on the sandhill cranes he had noticed in one of his fallow fields. “Don’t slam the door, and once we’re in the ditch it’s all hand signals,” warned Greg. “They’re really jumpy.”
The gulch was sandy, so we could creep along rather quietly toward the field, and after about a quarter mile through the canopy of overhanging cottonwood limbs, Greg signaled that we should lay against the edge to peek over the gulch bank. The sounds of the cranes were voluminous and rich, and there were hundreds of sandhills milling around. Much to our shocked surprise (and later celebration) was a singular whooping crane strutting around right in the middle of the flock. It stood out from the rest in both color and size. This was in the 1970s when whoopers were much closer to extinction then than now.
Whooping cranes are still incredibly rare. In the 1930s, due to hunting and habitat loss, the numbers were estimated in the 20s. When Greg and I saw the one in Colorado the estimate was about 70. Thanks to some innovative efforts that included adoptive incubation in sandhill nests, among other ideas, the numbers now range between 500 to 750 birds. However, their wintering in the coastal marshes of Texas, Louisiana and Florida are subject to hurricanes and other threats, including rising tidal waters due to global warming. A number were killed when Hurricane Harvey, with 132 mph winds, hit their Mustang Island wintering home within the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Hurricanes are still a major threat.
Back in December when we were talking about a midwinter road trip, Mary discovered the Aransas Refuge online, learning of their wintering area along the Gulf Coast of Texas near the small town of Rockport. Further research found a boating expedition into the depths of the Refuge specifically for birdwatchers. This meant those on board might have an excellent opportunity to possibly see whooping cranes up close on Mustang Island. We quickly booked a pair of seats on the launch as well as an Airbnb in Rockport.
In his introduction prior to pushing off for the three hour boat trip, the captain (who was also a naturalist) said there was an excellent chance of seeing whooping cranes, along with a vast number of other birds on the launch. He warned us, though, that we would likely be just close enough to the whooping cranes that they would appear the size of his small fingernail. “They’re now in pairs, and quite shy. We’ll try to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible,” he said. “We should have them here in the Refuge for another couple of months before they migrate northward. Tagging shows that most of those we see will migrate to Canada.”
Along the way and into the islands numerous bird species were pointed out by both the captain and sharp-eyed birders on board. I would mark several off my mental birder list including an oyster catcher. There were curlews and ibises, and terns and gulls — all too numerous to remember. Herons and other waders, too. Then we reached the first of the many islands of the Refuge, and it wasn’t long before the first sighting of a whooper pair was made. They were slightly closer than the singular one we had seen in Nebraska. Then came the surprise, and such incredible luck.
A pair were just off shore, slowly ambling along the potholes and brackish vegetation less than 100 yards distant. He slid the boat into the muck and cut the engine, making loud whispering descriptions of what we were witnessing. Using my 600 mm I was able to get some very nice closeup images of the birds as they ambled past us, stabbing at morsels at the edges of the pockets of water.
Once they had passed, he started the engine and slowly backed us out off the mud bank to move on further up toward the end of the island. Amazingly, the pair continued coming along, seemingly paying no attention to we onlookers until there was no island left. They stopped and turned toward us, appearing to chat between themselves. They might have been 35 yards away. As the birds communicated, I pulled back on my focal length, for I sensed they were about to fly. Then suddenly, in a heartbeat, they lifted into the sky and were gone.
As they circled away, our boat captain said in a full voice filled with wonder, “We were very, very lucky. It’s quite rare ever being this close to a pair. This was just incredible.” He took off his cap and smiled before starting the engine to back off the muck. As he did so those with cameras began looking through their digital images. Mary even had some good images on her cell phone, which indicates how close we had come. What a rare and special experience.
Unfortunately, with such low numbers, whooping cranes continue to face any number of threats as efforts continue to introduce them to new and different habitats such as fresh water rice areas further inland.
In a Bird Watching Magazine article by Matt Mendenhall, Wade Harrell, the whooping crane recovery coordinator at the Aransas refuge said, “Things could get tight in terms of habitat available on the coast. I would say that’s a rather conservative model in that our assumption behind it is that (the birds) continue to just use coastal marsh habitat. Historically, that’s really the only thing that we can model on going forward. But if we look at some of our other reintroduced populations, we see them using a wider variety of habitat types, including agricultural habitats. (For example,) the Louisiana birds are using rice agriculture pretty heavily.
“The best-case scenario is not only will they use coastal marsh but that they will spread into other habitat types farther inland. We’ve seen a little bit of that during drought periods.” During a recent drought, he noted, many cranes spent several months at Granger Lake in central Texas, showing that the birds can winter at a freshwater reservoir. “So, they certainly have a capacity and capability to use other types of habitats. It’s just a matter of will they as their population pushes beyond the marsh?”
What they face along the coastal marshes in terms of rising seas and possible hurricanes are not the only threats, he added. “I’m not complacent to the fact that we have great dangers with sea-level rise, with the threat of contamination from an industrial accident and from the tar sands developments in Alberta, which are just south of Wood Buffalo National Park, with hundreds of acres of poisoned lakes created by the effluent that the cranes could land in and that the fragile arctic ecosystem could be screwed up by.”
So, yes, the bird numbers have risen from near certain extinction to still under 1,000 birds — a rare species still on the edge of extinction. Our opportunity to not only see them in person, but to see them so close was a memory for life. We were quite blessed for this was indeed a rare and special experience.