Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Paul's Texas Trip Part 4 (Port Aransas Day 2)

Our second day in the Port Aransas area (see the first day here) and we had big birding plans. That's right, plans to see the tallest native bird of North America: the Whooping Crane. They overwinter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which is a fairly short boat ride out of Rockport, Texas.

We had made reservations with the Whooping Crane Boat Tours, which run on the Wharf Cat (a 80 foot catamaran). While anxiously waiting the departure of the boat, we noticed a Black-Crowned Night Heron sitting on a post in the harbor. Just like that, in the harbor? Anyways, as we pulled out of port, the captain helpfully detailed all of the birds we were likely (and then commenced to view) to see over the next hour as we motored out to the Whooping Cranes. These birds included: Laughing Gulls, Common Loons, Forster's Terns, American White and Brown Pelicans, Double Creasted and Neotropic Cormorants, and Ring-Billed Gulls.

Getting ready to see some whoopers.
Black-crowned Night Heron hanging in Rockport's harbor.
After about an hour of counting Laughing Gulls, pelicans, and loons, we closed in on the national wildlife refuge and started seeing Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets on the shoreline. This was a nice prelude to seeing these really tall, very white birds: Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Cranes.
So there they were. They were standing in the middle of a large salt marsh just doing what Whooping Cranes do. Probably looking for something to eat and trying not to look too conspicuous? All told, we eventually saw about 20 of these birds and it definitely made the trip. But after a few minutes I started looking around at the small marsh pools, which generally looked something like this:

Birdlife at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
There were lots of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and American Avocets. Looking more closely and I found Reddish Egrets, Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, White Ibis, and an associated collection of waterfowl. It was in the midst of this bird viewing orgy that it dawned on me that the boat's captain, who had promised to point out different birds along the way, was now really only commenting on the cranes. Very few instructions like, "Look to your left to see the Reddish Egret sneaking through the tall grass". It was being left to me to identify all of these birds, but I guess that's why they call it the "Whooping Crane Tour". C'est la vie.

After seeing several sets of Whooping Cranes over the course of an hour or so, the boat headed back to shore. My bird total for the boat trip was 28 species including the 20 or so Whooping Cranes, and brought my year list up to 70 species, which made the trip well worth it. The kids seemed to have fun too, except for the lack of any suitable lunch materials being sold on the boat and the somewhat uneventful trip to and from the wildlife refuge.

Back on shore, we headed off to find a late-afternoon snack and ended up with some very delicious homemade bread pudding at a little cafe in Aransas Pass, Texas. We jumped back in the car and took the ferry back to Port Aransas, where we did more birding. After two stops, I had recorded a Savannah Sparrow, more mockingbirds and Laughing Gulls, Blue-Winged Teal, Green-Winged Teal, American Coots, American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, more Black-Crowned Night Herons, American Avocets, and a Roseate Spoonbill. We were also treated to a Cooper's Hawk swooping over a marsh and glimpses of a Common Yellowthroat, a Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler. All in all a great day of birding, which raised my total to 77 species for the year.

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