I’m in Texas. All serious birders end up in Texas sooner or later. Over 600 species of birds have been recorded in Texas, making it the US state with the highest avian diversity. Texas is home to many species that aren’t usually found elsewhere in the United States such as Least Grebe, Altamira Oriole, and Plain Chachalaca. It’s also the winter home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the Whooping Crane.
I’ve discussed rare birds before, like the Northern Lapwing in Massachusetts or the Rufous-capped Warblers in Arizona. But those birds were merely out of place – rare within the bounds of the US, but commonly found elsewhere in the world. Whooping Cranes are critically endangered, with only a few hundred left on the planet. I visited the largest concentration of wild Whoopers at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the Texas gulf coast.
While never as abundant as their widespread North American cousins, Sandhill Cranes, Whoopers used to live throughout much of what is now the southeastern and midwestern United States, numbering more than 10,000 individuals at the time of the European colonization. Habitat destruction and hunting for meat and plumes drastically reduced the Whooper’s range and population until there were only 21 individuals left by the early 1940s. Protecting the species’ remaining habitat and a captive breeding program have brought the species back from the brink of extinction. Decades of conservation work have resulted in a flock of around 270 birds that winter in Aransas and breed in far northern Alberta. A second migratory flock is being established that winters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin (you might be familiar with this project – they teach the cranes the migration route by training them to fly behind an ultralight aircraft flown by a guy in a crane suit). A few non-migratory populations have also been released in Florida and Louisiana.
But most wild Whooping Cranes winter at Aransas, and that was where I caught up with them aboard the Skimmer, a boat that takes nature enthusiasts to see the Whoopers out on the refuge. They are spectacular birds, immaculately white and standing 5 feet tall. They have a long probing bill that they use for catching blue crabs (their favorite winter food) and other goodies, a red facial mask, and black wingtips that can be seen when they show off their 7-foot wingspan.
The cranes maintain their pair bonds throughout the year, and each pair stakes out a small feeding territory at Aransas. If the pair was successful at raising a chick, the young bird will also stay with them the first winter. The Skimmer cruised up and down the shallow coastal bay, coming upon family groups of two or three Whoopers every quarter mile or so. In three hours, I saw roughly 5% of all of the wild Whooping Cranes in existence.
While Whooping Cranes have a lot of things going for them, everything is not completely rosy. Texas has been gripped by a terrible drought for the past three years, and a dozen cranes starved to death several winters ago. The Wisconsin flock has not had good luck actually hatching and successfully raising chicks (this 21-minute excellent and heart-breaking podcast sums up the problems). The Florida non-migratory flock has suffered terrible losses due to bobcat predation. And several cranes have been shot dead in recent years by idiots with guns. Whooping Cranes are back from the brink of extinction, but much work remains to secure the long-term survival of this amazing species.