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Things every Texan should do before he dies: Check out whooping cranes

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Whooping it up: A pair of whooping cranes keeps watch on a shoreline at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge north of Rockport. The cranes winter in Texas, where they feed mostly on baby blue crabs.

As soon as we clear the launch site, Chuck Naiser points the Hell's Bay skiff to the southeast on a bearing that will take us across the mouth of Saint Charles Bay, past the southernmost tip of Blackjack Peninsula and into the Intracoastal waterway west of St. Joseph Island.

Naiser cuts the engine and we begin to slowly drift on a north wind intent on finding the rarest kind of Canadian snow bird.

It doesn't take long. A hundred and fifty yards ahead along a sandy shoreline of the refuge, a pair of whooping cranes, nearly one percent of the world population, are wading out of the shallow water. As they cross into the coastal grass, they're yakking it up, letting a nearby group of sandhill cranes and two other distant pairs of whooping cranes that we, and they, are coming.

In the morning sun, they are a blinding white with a small red-and-black Mohawk crown. Standing erect, they can be five feet tall. Their black tipped wings can span eight feet. They are the tallest of North American birds. And they are loud.

The trumpeting calls, musical, trilling and loud enough to be heard for miles over flat coastal prairie, are where whooping cranes get their name, though "whoop" is far too coarse and tacky a word to describe the beauty and profound wildness of that sound.

It's a sound nearly extinguished by westward expansionist habitat destruction and demands for elegant feathers for fashionable ladies' hats. In 1941, the entire North American population of the great bird had dropped to fewer than 20. Today, 70 years after conservation efforts began, there are about 300.

And most of them spend their 20 or so winters in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 115,000-acre wilderness bracketed on the north by San Antonio Bay and the south by Aransas Bay.

"You can see them almost every day right along the Intracoastal," Chuck Naiser says quietly. "They're pretty tolerant of people." The veteran coastal fly fishing guide agreed to take me on a whooper run. I wanted to see the birds close up, to hear their calls, to think maybe they have a chance.

It's 9:30. The morning fog has burned off. The temperatures have climbed into the upper 70s, we're down to T-shirts and shorts, and the whoopers are shining like new dimes out on the marsh. In their summer home, it could easily be in the single digits this morning.

During the summer, the whooping cranes nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, a huge chunk of Canada straddling the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. That country's largest national park was created in 1922 to help another species recover. The buffalo, once 40 million strong, had dwindled to fewer than 1,000 by 1900.

Wood Buffalo is so remote no one even knew the whooping cranes were nesting there until they were discovered by accident in 1954.

Each fall, either in pairs or with chicks, the cranes break away from the Canadian wilderness and fly 2,200 miles south-southeast over Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. They end the gauntlet of power lines, wind turbines and former intermediate feeding grounds fragmented by humans by flying over Fort Worth, down along the Colorado Rive drainage, and settling in salt marshes along the middle Texas coast.

There are fewer than 265 of them here now. This is their last stand. They live among the bobcats, deer, alligators and wading birds large and small. They are literally living in a fishbowl, picking blue crabs off salty marsh bottoms and nipping fast-disappearing wolfberries when they can find them.

This isn't the perfect habitat for them. The refuge is more upland oak mottes and dry country than the marshy flats and ponds where the birds can find the baby blue crabs that are their primary food. Heat and drought have sharply reduced crab populations, making it more difficult for the cranes to eat properly. Nearly two dozen of them died last year, and more may die this winter.

As we slowly cruise up to San Antonio Bay and back down to Saint Charles, Naiser and I see at least two dozen whooping cranes, most of them out on the marsh far back from the shore. They are easy to distinguish from the roseate spoonbills by their color and the great egrets by their size. The egret, also white and tall, is at least a foot shorter and not nearly as self-confident.

I have to fight the urge to attribute human thought to these birds, but secret worries keep worming their way into my mind: "Do they know the chick they're raising could be the last of his kind? Do they know they are one super drought/fast-moving virus/chemical spill/bizarre storm away from extinction?"

As we drift along, I remember the first whooping crane I saw. It was a whooper that didn't know he was a whooper.

It was 1994, and I was involved in a mad dash down the Rio Grande, from Creede, Colo., to Boca Chica on the Gulf, when I stumbled upon Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge at Socorro, N.M. Somebody told me I could spend the night there and get a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl Cafe south on Interstate 25 at San Antonio , N.M.

Bosque del Apache (Spanish for forest or woods of the Apaches, and descriptive of the cottonwood stands along the river there) is home to North America's largest wintering population of sandhill cranes. Sandhills and whoopers are the only true cranes in North America. Fortunately for their kind, sandhills number in the hundreds of thousands.

At one point it was suggested that the sandhills might provide a rescue strategy for the endangered whooping cranes. The strategy stemmed from the whoopers' practice of laying a pair of eggs but typically raising only one chick. The idea was to snatch one egg from a nest and give the chick to sandhills to raise.

And it worked. Sort of. Briefly. Turns out it was only a short-term solution because some of the transplanted whoopers made it to adulthood thinking they were sandhill cranes.

Why nobody thought of this I'll never know. The transplanted whoopers lived with the sandhills, travel ed with the sandhills and bred with the sandhills. In the long run, the solution produced hybrid birds, not whoopers.

But back in 1994, there was still a single shiny, white whooping crane at Bosque del Apache, and I saw it. I took pictures of it. I wondered if that lone bird had any idea he was a mad scientist's experiment and not a sandhill like his parents and the thousands of other sandhills squawking at the sunset that chilly afternoon.

Naiser's voice breaks through the fog and my memories to whisper that he's letting the boat drift on past the pair of whooping cranes, our cranes. I've taken ownership of them in just a few short minutes.

"When I first started coming down here to fish, I never saw cranes," he says. "I never looked for them, either. But over the years, people started showing more interest in them, so I had to pay attention. Now it's just a part of my day, and I love seeing them."

So do I. I'm glad I have seen them. I'm glad my grandkids will have a chance to see them. And I'm glad they'll do it in Texas. Only in Texas.