Nature

Whooping Cranes Head to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

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Over 500 Whooping Cranes, North America’s tallest bird, make the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding area their winter home. From November to March, residents of Rockport and Fulton welcome them with boat tours and other viewing opportunities. The majestic Whooping Crane stands over five-feet tall, with a seven-foot wingspan.

The wild flock was classified an endangered species in 1967. After numbering only 15 in the 1940s, the Whooping Crane’s current population is close to 600. A pair of Whooping Cranes will mate for life and bring their families along on the annual migration.

Whoopers make their way from the marshes of Southern Canada and the Northern U.S. each year, a journey of more than 2,500 miles, to reach the Texas Gulf Coast. The tall cranes can be spotted nesting in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, or as far south as near Goose Island State Park. This area provides marshy ground, an excellent habitat for the Whooping Crane with plentiful Blue Crabs. The crabs are their number one food source, along with an abundance of wolfberries and other such sources.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Whooping Cranes head to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Captain Tommy Moore

The birds can be viewed on land at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, recently named the number one “Best place for birding in the United States” in USA Today’s 10Best. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is only 30 minutes from the Rockport-Fulton area.

The International Crane Foundation has an office in Rockport, with the Texas Program operated by Senior Whooping Crane Scientist Dr. Liz Smith and her colleagues.

Dr. Smith 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 too, including lots of herons, Sandhill Cranes, wild hogs, and alligators.”

Whooping Cranes Boat Birding Tours

Whooping Cranes head to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Captain Tommy Moore

To see the Whooping Cranes on the water, Boat Birding Tours are available from Fulton Harbor. Captain Tommy Moore operates the “Skimmer” tour boat at Fulton Harbor.

Captain Moore says, “The migration is in full swing! The White Pelicans have arrived, which is always exciting. We’re seeing lots of duck, Ibis, Shorebirds, and 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 of Whoopers to start arriving in early November. Conditions have been favorable with plenty of fresh water and Blue Crabs for them to eat.”

Moore adds, “We officially open our season on November 15. We will be scheduling a few trips leading up to then, so give us a call and we will make some early season trips into the Refuge in the first two weeks of November. These trips generally last three hours with an average 30-60 species of birds and other animals spotted along the way.”

Covid-19 Safety Precautions

Whooping Cranes head to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Photo: Captain Tommy Moore

For the 2020-21 season, safety precautions have been put in place due to Covid-19. The trips are limited capacity, and 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. The birding trips generally last three hours, with an average 30-60 species of birds and other animals spotted along the way. Trips are scheduled through the end of March.

Some professional fishing guides in the area offer birding boat tours by appointment. Visit rockport-fulton.org for a list of these operators, or more information on birding. The site also provides information about other area attractions and places to stay in the Rockport-Fulton area. For additional questions, call the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center at 361-729-6445.