In Search of a Rare Bird
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Texas, the Lone Star State, and the place I now hang my hat. Having settled into our new place just outside San Antonio proper, my next goal was to hit the road in search of the rarest crane on the planet. This was something I had been planning since we first got word we would be moving to San Antonio and I was super excited to put plans into action and start exploring this very, VERY, large state.
The bird I was looking to find was the Whooping Crane (Grus americana). The tallest bird in North America, standing an average of five feet tall, they only weigh in at about 13lb. One of two cranes species in North America (the other being the sandhill crane), these birds are a brilliant white over most of their body, with a red crown and dark mask. Adults of the species have black wingtips that are only seen when the underside of the wing is exposed, such as in flight or during courtship. Young juveniles, within their first year, have cinnamon plumage interspersed with the incoming white adult coloring.
A bit of history about this species: by 1941 only twenty-one wild and two captive whooping cranes remained on Earth due to unregulated overhunting (think feather trade) and habitat loss. Federally and internationally classified as endangered, today there are only about 800 birds left between the wild flock, three reintroduced flocks, and those that are in captivity. Due to concentrated conservation efforts and an intensive captive breeding/migratory training program, the species is ever so slowly crawling further away from extinction. All are now descendants of the small wild population that migrates between Canada and Texas. Those wild birds that I was so excited to see.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge spans three counties along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Primarily found on the Blackjack Peninsula off San Antonio Bay, the refuge encompasses over 115,000 acres of land, from oak hammock to saltmarsh and barrier island ecosystems. This protected area is the winter home to the last remaining wild population of whooping cranes. The roughly 500 individual cranes (last count during the 2019-2020 winter) scatter along the coastal marshes, hunting for blue crabs - the species' favorite, and wolfberries (Lycium carlinianum) - a relative of the goji berry and a superfood that helps the cranes regain their energy after arriving from northern Canada.
So how do you locate such a rare bird over such a large piece of land? Well, thankfully for us, they are tall and white which does help in spotting them at a distance against the green, brown, and blue of the coastal environment. For me, the pre-planning research is what makes finding a specific species in the field successful along with enlisting the help of locals who have been following these birds day in and day out, season after season, and have come to know them on an individual basis.
Gear Tip: Pre-planning research has been made so much easier with the advent of online citizen scientist projects and crowdsourcing of information. Sites such as eBird or iNaturist can give up-to-date information on what has been sighted where as reported by individuals of the public as they are out in the field.
Upon arriving in the Rockport area, located just south of Aransas NWR, I set up camp at Goose Island State Park. It is one of the know locations outside the refuge that the cranes can be seen on a somewhat regular basis and they have beautiful bay-front camping spots with clean bathrooms and hot showers. Kind of felt spoiled with such luxuries while camping and made spending time there on the coast even easier. Reminder to self to bring hammock next time.
Abstract saltmarsh reeds with reflection at sunset.
Within the state park, they also have several trails, areas for fishing, and a boat ramp with fish cleaning station. Wading birds are common in some of the quieter spots and pelicans, both brown and American white, flock to the ramp when boaters come in to take out as the pelicans have learned that the fishermen who clean their catch there toss the guts and skin back into the water. So the pelicans come for an easy meal in the evenings. That being said, between boats being pulled out, the pelicans often congregate in small groups and just paddle around the shallow lagoon area adjacent to the ramp, waiting. This provides a good opportunity to photograph these unique birds up close during the sunset hour, especially the American white pelicans which I have always found to be rather skittish in other settings.
Remember what I said about finding the locals who know the birds, well, my in with such knowledge are Captain Kevin and Captain Lori of Aransas Bay Birding Charters. Up before dawn, we headed out on the water to be in position with the cranes as the sun rose. As with all wildlife, there is no guarantee that they will be in a particular spot or acting a certain way. Part of what keeps this job/hobby/career/craft interesting and makes each day unique and exciting. Yet, as I said before, going with those who are out there every day and have a firm grasp of how these particular individuals of the species behave is by far the best way to have success in finding your subject.
We were lucky to spot a group of subadults, ones that are old enough to have adult plumage but are still to young to have paired for breeding and territory. They were just waking, shaking off the cold night and preparing to forage for breakfast. In this, they decided to fly from the island they had been roosting on to the shoreline opposite across the small channel. This put them opposite the rising sun and gave me wonderfully warm light to work with when photographing them. It really was the best conditions I could hope for without clouds.
Photography tip: Sunrise and sunset, many times, have fast changing lighting situations. Make sure to pay attention to your light meter and histogram, checking every so often that you aren't blowing out any portion of the image, especially your subject. This is very easy to do with white subjects like whooping cranes, great white herons, or white ibis.
After a while of foraging, something further into the marsh seemed to spook them as several lifted their heads and croaked at the others, alerting them to their desire to leave. That was also my cue to get ready for in-flight images. With a low vegetation line and no real clouds in the sky, I knew my window to create a pleasing image would be fleeting to say the least. The whooping crane has a wing span of seven and a half feet, meaning it really gains altitude with every wingbeat if it wants. So preparation and understanding the behavior of these birds is key to getting great action images. Thankfully, my time spent with the red-crowned cranes in Japan has taught me quite a bit about crane behavior, though there are some marked differences between the species.
After the youngsters took off, we set out to visit some of the older pairs' territories that are known to the Captains. This is one of the big behavioral differences between the whooping crane and the red-crowned crane of Japan or even the native sandhill cranes; whooping cranes are still territorial even in their wintering grounds. Maybe it is due to the relative "scarcity" of their prime prey, the blue crab, or because they spend the winters continuing to raise the fledgling(s) that hatched the previous spring and want to ensure enough food with low competition in the area. Either way, it means that seeing more than two or three at a time is uncommon, a divergence from what many of us think about when photographing cranes in the winter.
A subadult snaps at another that had been having some hunting success in this particular spot.
As we cruised along the intercoastal waterways on the edge of the Aransas NWR, we came across several pairs and a few of the subadults. Most were foraging in the tidal pools and shallows for crab. What was interesting to me upon observing this behavior is that they frequently, for all but the smallest of crabs, will catch the crab and then carry it to the bank where they then pull it apart to consume. Again, this behavior differs from many other crustacean eating birds I have witnessed, such as great blue herons who typically swallow their prey whole in a slightly, all right maybe more than slightly, gastronomically upsetting way simply by relaxing their throats and opening wide, very snake-like. Because of the whooping cranes' prerogative to eat small bites - just another factor to point to when talking about their gracefulness - it creates a good bit of time to capture images of them with crabs in their bills as they carry the crab to the chosen grassy knoll.
With the clear skies and bright sun really starting to wash the color and contrast out of the landscape, plus having been photographing for almost six hours, it was time to head back to shore for some food of our own. That and needing to change out memory cards and batteries! Always a good sign that the morning has been productive.
My afternoons in the area were spent splitting my time between photographing wading birds and the whooping cranes from land. Again, getting to know the locals can really open doors to areas and opportunities the average traveling photographer wouldn't have otherwise. In this case, chit chatting with someone at an earlier time garnered me permission to photograph on private property just outside the refuge. Here the cranes came in a couple times a day to snack on corn left out for the resident population of deer. This access allowed me to get much closer to the whooping cranes than would otherwise be possible from any of the public access within the refuge. Those who choose to join me next year on my Coastal Texas Birding photo adventure will be able to also take advantage of this very special location while we are there.
Another spot, one that is easily found and open to the public, is the cattle fields next to the Big Tree (literally what it is called and not just a physical description I promise). This pasture is part of the winter territory of one mature pair of whooping cranes. Sometimes, while that pair is out foraging for crabs, a younger subadult or two will rest here as it is a good source of fresh water, something that isn't as plentiful as you would think out here in the marshes. However, when the territorial pair return, the younger birds make haste in leaving. Be patient enough and during these territorial exchanges, you can capture some good in flight shots as well as the pair together with feathers ruffled.
Photography tip: When waiting for exchanges that will likely result in take-offs, be aware of the direction of the wind. Birds take off into the wind, much like airplanes, so if the situation allows, set up with the wind at your back or coming over your shoulder. That way when the bird(s) take off, they fly towards you. Also, note where they are most likely to go, e.g. another roosting spot or foraging grounds. This information will give you an idea of where the bird will head once in the air.
Often overlooked here due to their proximity to the endangered cousins, the sandhill cranes are also present in some numbers. These much more garrulous cranes are the ones those living in flyover areas will hear, especially in the mornings and evenings. Growing up in Central Florida and hearing the sandhills come to town meant that winter was sure on its way. Anyway, these cranes can be just as wonderful a subject as the whooping cranes so be sure not to shy away from spending time photographing them as well.
Within the refuge there are several trails that lead out to the coastline. In these spots, wading birds can be photographed from a low perspective. One of my favorite waders is the reddish egret, a near threatened bird with special protections and entertaining hunting behavior. Other birds in the greater Rockport/Aransas area include an assortment of herons, white ibis, and raptors such as the red shouldered hawk and crested caracara.
It is important to note that quite a few of these species are only here during the winter months, much like the whooping cranes. Others like the American avocet and reddish egret have a year round presence though the summer populations often are smaller than the winter.
Overall, it has been amazing to find such a wonderful location only a few hours drive from my new home. Already I have spent over a week in the area and have at least another week scheduled in the coming month. The Rockport area may become my home away from home during the winter, but who knows? Texas is so vast and there is lots more for me to see. So who is going to come exploring with me?
Until next time, cheers!