Thursday, January 23, 2020

Texas: Birding the Aransas Area

     For a few days, we resided just outside Corpus Cristi, Texas. We planned a full day in San Antonio, just to explore a new city ( I recommend the Riverwalk Park, it's just a beautiful park and if you walk beyond the tourist zone, you see cave swallow nests under the bridges and even a few cormorants and egrets too!), and explore Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
     Of course, we had to explore where we were staying, on Padre Island, except we drove North onto Mustang Island and got a lovely wildlife surprise...
We walked this seawall at the end of Mustang Island in Port Aransas, near the Nature Area. And immediately noticed bottlenose dolphins, literally under our feet.

You know what is amazing? Getting to watch dolphins. It is so mesmerizing and we both could not stop observing them and hoping for one to pass us by.
We observed the dolphins with fish in their mouths. They would chase fish up against the wall and just pick them off once they had nowhere to go. three or four animals kept close to the wall while another stayed a bit of a ways out, as if to almost coordinate or ensure that the fish stayed close to the wall. It was pretty damn amazing to watch.
So, of course, I am just ticked to hell with these dolphins and my initial reaction is to SQUEAL and just be 200% delighted. Since dolphins are herd to photo (in really dense fog) and predict where they will show up, I took to using my iphone. So here is some video but fair warning, I am loud. To the point where a man 100 yards down the way, when he passed us by exclaimed how he could hear me way down where he was. I hope they make you smile too:

Before going to Aransas NWR, I got a tip from a birding friend to stop at Big Tree at Lamar Road and to bird the pastures there. It was good advice, unfortunate for us it began with a lot of fog, making visibility very tough...
Nearly every wire post or fence post had a vulture perched atop it. Many giving off super goth vibes, like this black vulture.

This great blue heron was fishing next to a man who was fishing. Like as if they were talking up their latest catch or gossiping about their local rival fisherman....

It also didn't seem to mind other folks just walking by.

Through the fog, I spotted a lovely group of sandhill cranes sharing a field with cattle.
They also shared it with egrets, ibis, spoonbill, yellowlegs, gadwall, blue-wing teal, killdeer, and even one long-billed curlew!

Goth turkey vulture over a spooky foggy field and barb wire fence.
This bird knows how to pick its scenery!

A local dock was not for boats, but for American White Pelicans.

Then, behind a house, in a field we saw our first whooping cranes!
The folks around here seem to have much pride for their whoopers, as they affectionately call them.
A pickup truck rolled up next to me and asked, "You looking for the whoopers?" and I replied yes, and he instructed me as to where the group currently was. They seems to know their value and importance to the natural area here, and know they are very special.
Also very special to me... lifebird.

A whooping crane is our tallest bird in North America, standing nearly 5 feet tall, the sandhill crane is a bit shorter (left) at 3.5-4ft tall.

Just when I thought things were going great... whoopers, the fog lifting... then a flock of black-bellied whistling ducks flew in! How much better could this day get?!
(spoiler: it gets better)

These dapper looking ducks are often heard before seen. They fly in whistling just like their name says. They stand on tall pink legs to match that vivid pink bill, they are lovely ducks.

Some turkey vulture detail.

I don't care about other folks' opinions on vultures, I think this is a beautiful bird. Beautifully adapted also, to its important job of scavenging.

Got a less foggy picture before heading up to Aransas and discovered...

A banded bird! I reported it to USGS here.
And I got back the report:
By time we arrived at Aransas NWR, it was nearly noon and the fog finally cleared. That was so very wonderful for us. We also met up with my friend Jeana, who I bird with here in NYC. Our trips overlapped and we got to enjoy Aransas with her and her friend, Lance. And oh what a wonderful time we had...
I didn't think we'd see any armadillos, but this place was CRAWLING with them!

These are 9-banded armadillos and I thought they'd be shy and more active at dusk and dawn, but nit here. The place was littered with them!
They are funny creatures, mammals with what seems like a shell. You can see a mammalian feature, sparse hairs coming out from under its "shell."
Armadillos are closely related to anteaters and sloths. Their front claws very much are the only easily visible indication of that relationship.

This place was also littered with American Alligators. This is one of three juveniles, just sitting around, just off the trail on their little own islands in this small pond. Other gators were saw were quite sizable. I never had such ease of seeing gators like we did here, not even in Florida. So far Texas has been beating all my typical expectations associated with Florida, oranges and now gators.

But what Aransas is REALLY known for -- that face! Whoopers!

We saw this pair of whoopers at close range off of the heron trail over look. We were told we could have luck viewing a pair there, but was told they could easily be very far. We got very lucky. We viewed them with absolute delight and had them all to ourselves!

They mostly walked around, drank some water, and pretty much owned the place.

So I fell in love with these cranes and their story. This bird is really endangered. In 2018 they had their highest count in Aransas (which is actually really big, but much of it is inaccessible to the public -- and probably for the better. Their total was 500 birds.
In the 1930's these birds dwindled down to a meager count of 16.
That's it.

If you are an amateur or professional zoologist, a lover of animals, or someone who enjoys a good ol' nature documentary. You probably know the stories of humans raising cranes, which is to be honest super weird. Babies are hatched in captivity, and ultimately raised by humans in crane costumes, and then are taught to follow a plane to help them make their seasonal migration and learn where to go. That story is that of the Florida Population which has a bunch of trouble breeding successfully on their own -- I mean, they had some very serious mommy/daddy issues and truly were not raised by cranes. That population is still being monitored heavily, worked on, and studied.

The population at Aransas is different.

The birds at Aransas winter in Canada, the lands they frequent there are still what they need. The issues the cranes faced were the development of their sites here in the states. Aransas was deemed a refuge with these cranes in mind and preserving this habitat for them. The population at Aransas breeds, migrates, and survives on their own without human intervention. The birds in Florida spend their summers in Wisconsin, they are two distinct populations.

So seeing these birds, a conservation success (that still has a long way to go, mind you - the battle is not over), was so very special. I will greatly appreciate this experience to see these birds wild, and these particular birds who are still surviving.
They are an important reminder of how you cant save wildlife without saving wild spaces.
It is clear that the people who live here know how valuable these birds are, their precious Whoopers. I hope that they take pride in these birds calling their home, home.

I hope my kid will some day want to see wild whooping cranes and learn about how this bird was almost nonexistent not just for them but for me too.
It's an important reason why laws like the endangered species act and migratory bird treaty act need to be kept intact and to stop being dismantled by the sitting administration.

Roseate spoonbills also shared this field with the whooping cranes that towered over them.

Damn, I love this bird so much.

And as we were ready to check out another spot, so were they. They spread those massive wings and soared down to the furthest section of the field.
Thank you, Cranes, for such a special experience!

Saw a few Couch's Kingbirds all around making funny noises and going after insects.

Northern pintail tails!
And now, the whole duck!

At the south end there are some observation towers that are clearly owned by vultures. They are covered in their poop and poop footprints (because vultures love pooping on their legs to keep cool when it is warm outside).
So of course, the trees next to the tower were also covered in both black and turkey (this fella) vultures.

And then someone else joined the vultures.

Crested Caracaras are somehow related to falcons. They don't look much like one - but they are totally amazing looking.

Saw these birds a lot on the road, while driving, so it was really nice that this bird flew in and landed in a nice spot, directly in front of us.
The birds in Texas are just so kind!

We then traveled the wildlife drive loop.
We saw a lot of NY Birds... Mourning doves, (SO MANY) Northern Mockingbirds, an extra helping of American Kestrels, and Eastern phoebes. We were told to look for an eagle nest.
We found it!
They flag as rare on eBird, so that's cool. The rangers seemed super stoked to have them nesting and presume they have at least one chick.
The nest is very far off the road and this is taken at 500mm and heavily cropped at that!

Saw some deer as we concluded our visit. This is the only one who didn't run in front of our car.
A very successful visit and an incredibly memorable one at that!

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