A pair of whooping cranes stand about 300 yards off in the distance at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell. (Matt Briscoe)

Matt Briscoe

Publisher 

Austwell—If you head over towards Rockport-Fulton over the course of the next several months you might very well be able to grab hold of an experience that will last a lifetime. Every year for a few months in Autumn and Winter the rare, highly endangered and magnificent whooping crane calls this area home. 

In the last few years, a record number of cranes have making their Winter home here on the Texas coast, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

These “Whoopers”, as they are often called, are a white bird with a crimson cap, long and dark pointed bill, and the famous whooping sound it makes. Whooping cranes are often confused with other large white birds like pelicans and wood storks—but it’s their size that sets them physically apart. They can also be differentiated by their black wing tips which have about 10 feathers. Whooping cranes are an endangered crane species with a record of around only 153 pairs living in captivity today. Unfortunately, the whooping crane has gone through a large decline in population due to habitat loss and over-hunting, but conservation efforts are diligently working hard to change that. 

There are two large migration patterns for these specific cranes and one of them just so happens to be the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

These seeming prehistoric birds tend to go to wetlands, river bottoms, and agricultural lands as they migrate. Predators often include black bears, wolverines, gray wolves, red foxes, and ravens—which are limited, at best here in South Texas. 

Catching a glimpse of these enormous birds is not easy, but it’s not hard either. On a chilly January morning a few seasons ago, I met up with Captain Tommy Moore, who is a passionate expert on these strange, yet fascinating creatures. 

Moore, operates one of the birding charters there out of Rockport Harbor and within moments of leaving the dock, Captain Moore points out just what you came to find. 

Experts suggest that the whooping crane’s  winter range here in Texas covers about 35 miles of the coastline and considering the vastness, that’s a pretty small area of real estate. 

But where do they come from and why do they choose this swath of land to call their winter home? Captain Moore explains has the answer to that. 

Captain Moore explains how these whooping cranes migrate more than 2,400 miles each year as they make their way here to Austwell, Texas. They come here, Moore explains, for food, habitat and safety during the cold Canadian winter months. But the story doesn’t stop there. The history of these big, broad birds goes back much further and as many as 1,400 whooping cranes migrated across North America in the mid-1800s. 

By the late 1930s, the Aransas population was down to just 18 birds known to be in existence worldwide. But because of well-coordinated efforts to protect habitat and the birds themselves, the population is slowly increasing. In 1993, the population stood at 112. In the spring of 2002, it was estimated that there were 173 whoopers known in existence. Between then and now, those numbers are believed to be improving and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aerial surveys counted 505 cranes in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 2018, even post-Harvey, as a part of their annual winter survey. That number represents a solid a 17 percent increase from the 2017 count. 

One interesting fact about the whooping crane is that they mate for life with only one partner. However, they have been known to accept a new mate if one dies. These long-lived birds cranes can live up to 24 years in the wild. 

It’s never a bad time to go and get out and enjoy nature but if you go over to Rockport-Fulton seeking out the whoopers, be prepared to take a long lense and some decent optics for optimal viewing. But by all means, they aren’t necessarily needed. And if you’re concerned about not knowing much about these birds, fret not the least—there seems to never be anyone far away from you who knows a thing or 10 about these majestic and magical creatures that call the Texas Coast home for just a few months out of the year. 

Aboard a budding charter with Captain Tommy Moore on an early winter morning near Fulton Harbor. (Matt Briscoe)