They’re international jet setters, flying 2,500 miles just for some tasty food and warm winter weather. Like any good A-Lister celebrity, whooping cranes steal the show everywhere they fly.
These five-foot-tall birds make an amazing journey each year from their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Coastal Texas.
Whooping Crane 411
Whooping cranes garner so much attention because so few have survived. In 1941 a mere 21 cranes existed in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. Alarmed conservationists soon created plans to help the birds rebound.
These birds easily made the endangered species list. Because of that they’ve even managed to get two countries to work together on restoration efforts. Both Canada and the United States protected prime habitat for nesting and migration.
The Canadian government created Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 to protect the last remaining bison herd in northern Canada. But happily the whooping cranes’ last natural nesting area also falls under the park’s protection.
Whooping cranes mate for life, doing elaborate jumping, running and dancing displays to attract that special someone. They build nests in marshy areas and tend the youngsters together.
The hatchlings grow quickly going from 4 inches tall at birth to 5 feet tall with a 7-foot or larger wingspan as adults. In just eighty days these babies morph into strong fliers. At the end of summer, all of the whoopers get ready to head south for a winter vacation in the Lone Star State.
The birds often travel in family or small groups, stopping to rest at various spots from Canada to South Dakota to North Texas before reaching the Gulf Coast of Texas. The 2,500-mile trip can take up to 50 days.
In 2017 biologists captured and tagged a three-month-old whooping crane at Wood Buffalo National Park. They followed every move of the bird’s journey from Canada to Texas with the help of his cellular-based telemetry unit. In true scientific form, researchers named the young crane “7A”. To read about “7A’s” adventures, go Here.
While Canada got an early start in helping the whooping cranes, the United States government followed suit and set aside Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 1937 because of its importance for migrating birds and other wildlife. In another happy coincidence several years later, scientists discovered the dwindling populations of whooping cranes and the importance of the coastal Texas wildlife refuge to these birds.
Barrier islands, bays, shallow marshes and tidal areas along the Gulf Coast near Rockport and Austwell provide perfect foraging opportunities for the whooping cranes. The coast serves up a buffet of blue crabs, shrimp, clams, wolfberries, insects, seeds, frogs, snakes and mice. It’s a whooping crane nirvana. So the birds hang out in Texas until mid-April when they return to their Canadian nesting grounds.
Over the years the numbers of this rare bird kept building. In 2017 the official count showed 431 whooping cranes at Aransas. The population exploded compared to the measly 21 from the 1940s. But it’s still a small number of a very special bird.
A Wing and a Prayer
Whooping Cranes definitely caught Dad’s attention. These large, elegant and endangered birds were hanging out a couple hours drive from his house. The possibility of photographing them drew Dad to South Texas like a moth to the flame.
He’d visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge before, but he hadn’t seen any of the cranes. After doing more research, Dad decided chartering a boat would be a better way to successfully photograph these graceful birds. After all they spent most of their time in marshy areas far away from people.
Captain Kevin Sims with Aransas Bay Birding Charters regularly brought photographers very close to the whoopers. So Dad boarded The Jack Flash with high hopes early one cold, overcast morning in February. The fog really socked in the bay, creating nice soft light.
Captain Kevin took up photography in 2004. So he knew what photographers needed to make amazing photos—great light and access. He worked really hard to get Dad in the best possible shooting situations.
It helps that Captain Kevin fished and explored the waterways around Aransas for over 45 years. He not only knows his way around a tricky area, he also understands the wildlife that makes the bays, rivers and marshes home. In fact, he knows the area so well that a thick fog bank with low visibility prevent him from successfully navigating the waters that morning.
Captain Kevin hit all of the usual spots for whooping crane activity. The Jack Flash glided through Aransas Bay, past Goose Island State Park and by Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. But the wily birds seemed particularly skittish that morning and flew away before the boat got close enough for Dad to take a photo, even with his Canon 400mm lens plus Canon 1.4 extender. Several hours passed with many “near misses” and a tangle with a sandbar. Dad got discouraged. Prayer seemed like a good option since it would take a miracle to get a shot on this morning.
Just when Dad was ready to give up, Captain Kevin spotted a pair of whoopers near the Intracoastal Waterway eating blue crabs in marshes. As they pulled up to the sand bar another whooping crane flew a little too close to these birds’ territory.
Dad captured several frames of the first whooping crane taking off to confront the intruder. He also photographed the other crane preening plus a roseate spoonbill that landed near the returning cranes. Dad was a happy camper.
Dad’s whooping crane adventures took place well before Hurricane Harvey. So we watched in horror this last summer as the coast of Texas got slammed. We wondered how all of the fantastic folks we’d met through photo adventures faired, much less the abundant wildlife along the coast. The whooping cranes were safe in Canada at the time, but many other birds were caught in the storm.
While many people in nearby Rockport and Port Aransas experienced complete destruction during Harvey, we’re happy to report Captain Kevin’s back on the water, running his boat trips. Aransas National Wildlife Refuge still welcomes visitors although many buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
The coastal marsh habitat weathered the storm, although evidence like buoys, plastic and other man-made items washed in from the bay. Scientists’ main concern for the whoopers stemmed from potential water pollution and an increase in the salinity of the birds’ drinking water. While the storm did destroy a lot of vegetation, the highly prized wolfberry still awaited the whoopers this fall.
As Texans banded together to help each other in the aftermath of the hurricane, several organizations jumped into action to help the whooping cranes. While clean up and recovery is ongoing, the cranes showed up on schedule this past fall and appear to be doing well. The return of these jet-setting birds gives Texans hope that life will return to normal sometime soon.
If You Go
- Hurricane Harvey impacted much of the Gulf Coast in August 2017. Many businesses are rebuilding, so check out the availability of food, gas and lodging thoroughly before heading to the coast.
- Make reservations with Captain Sims in advance Here.
- You can share the cost of a charter if you’ve got several photographer friends. Check it out Here.
- Pair down your gear. Tripods and camera bags are allowed and can be stored inside the cabin, but we’ve found the less gear the better. We like to take one camera with a zoom lens for anything that happens close to the boat as well as one camera with a long lens, at least a 400mm. Obviously you’ll need a tripod for any large lenses.
- Bring snacks and drinks. Captain Kevin provides water and soft drinks.
- Don’t forget the Dramamine if you’re prone to sea sickness.
- Wear rubber soled shoes. Decks can be slippery.
- Bring sunscreen and a hat. Even on an overcast day the glare from the water can give you sunburn.
- Dress warmly in the winter. Winds off the water can make it chilly.
- The best time of year to see whooping cranes is mid-November through mid-March, although they begin arriving in October and leave by April.