Texas Birding Trip, Part 4: Aransas Bay and the Whooping Cranes (that’d be a pretty sweet name for a band)

by Spallin Jay on March 4, 2013

In no way did I want to rush away from beautiful Texas Hill Country, but trip length limitations dictated it was time to head to the coast; Aransas Bay. I had chartered a boat with a local fisherman to set sea from the harbour town of Rockport before dawn.

Rockport is found on the central western shore of Aransas Bay, which is part of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Reserve is home to an ecosystem critical to the most endangered bird species in North America (and also the tallest for you trivia fans), the Whooping Crane.

I’d heard of our Captain, Kevin Sims of Aransas Bay Birding Charters, through positive word of mouth online. The Captain later told us that although he remains a fisherman at heart, throughout the years he developed a liking to taking birders out on his boat. I can only assume it’s because we bird folk are so damn charming.

Yeah. Let’s go with that.

We arrived in Rockport at around 1am, with just enough time to grab some convenience store sustenance for our seaward adventure. I believe it was a place called “Sonic.” Needless to say, haute cuisine this was not.

We our provisions with sugary pop and over-processed crapwiches. Didn’t Roger Tory Peterson himself claim to be fuelled during much of his North American journey by Coca-Cola? That made me feel marginally better. Now we just had to park and sleep near the boat launch for the few hours remaining before our seaward departure.

It would prove to be another night of car camping, but unlike our previous experience, these digs offered anything but rest. Our proximity to water made us luscious, delicious dinner to the shore dwelling mosquito population. The possible solution of closing the car windows for respite was impossible given our certain asphyxiation in the thick Gulf Coast air. Wanting to be alive to bird the next day, we chose to donate our blood to the local mozzies rather than suffocate to death in a Ford Focus (clearly not a glamourous way to go, especially for the lady birder trying to uphold a modicum of sexiness).

BRPE-flight-(2)v2

You know you’ve hit the coast… Brown Pelican

Captain Kevin Sims of Aransas Bay Birding Charters greeted us a few minutes ahead of schedule with a perceptive: “You the birders?”

Barely awake and more itchy than Snooki at a walk-in clinic, we perked up immediately. It was go-time. With no messing around in the name of preserving adequate light for bird photography, we cruised into the promising infancy of another rising Texas sun.

DCCO,-Aransas

Double-crested Cormorants were common during the boat trip

DCCO-flight,-Aransas-(3)

Good looks at the gular patch to distinguish this Double-Crested from a Neotropic

DCCO-in-scratching-sequence,-Aransas-(1)

“Ahhhh… It’s a living.”

LAGU-flight,-Aransas

The most common gull on the trip by far, the Laughing Gull. Bonus larophilia in that they were displaying their striking breeding plumage.

The roar and speed of the small boat was exhilarating. Suddenly I was awake, and it wasn’t because of the cheap convenience store coffee. We were two birders with one captain on a mission to find birds in prime habitat. [Insert adrenaline-pumped expletive here].

We first stopped near a swampy part of the estuary, where I heard the unmistakeable sound of an Ammodramus sparrow; that intense yet audible “burning” sound made by birds I’d felt in past fits of ornithological passion, such as Nelson’s , Le Conte’s, and Saltmarsh Sparrows.

But such an ammo here? That had to be something different, something new. Indeed when the boat stopped and we quietly approached the marsh, I got my lifer Seaside Sparrow, singing in all its glory at the top of a bulrush and waiting to be crappily photographed by me from very far away. It’s one of those auditory memories that will haunt me in a good way, until the day I go demented. And hopefully, beyond that.

Seaside-Sparrow,-Aransas-(2)-try-2

Lifer Seaside Sparrow! Another beauty from the flat-headed sparrow group (Ammodramus maritimus)Seaside-Sparrow,-Aransas-(3)Its supraloral and mustachial markings were striking even from a distance of >100m

Not far from the Seaside Sparrow spot, the Captain announced that we were in Whooping Crane habitat. The cranes are fond of this area because it provides several of their favourite things: fresh water, blue crabs, and some delicious tuberrific plants; all important parts of their omnivorous diet. But these most endangered birds in North America, we were told, had already started on their northward migration.

So the anxiety mounted—we might miss the Whoopers! But then, I saw the Captain spying something far off: something “big and white.”  Oh baby…

Binoculars fixed on some big white blobs, there they were, foraging in the marshy vegetation of the clean Aransas waters. We edged quietly closer to the birds, too far to disturb them, but close enough for a half-decent shot. Now THIS is what we came for. They were huge! Like titanium-white ostriches poking about in the reeds.

Whooping-Crane,-Aransas

At the time we saw the Whooping Cranes (April 2012), there were only 304 left. Now, there are less, as I’ve learned that at least one bird has been shot by a hunter accidentally. The lax hunting laws that preside around their migration routes pave the road for unsuspecting hunters who kill first and ask questions later.

We ended up seeing 30 cranes that morning, accounting for roughly 10 per cent of the entire world population. It was at once transcendent yet sad, considering that one bad storm, one oil spill affecting the inner gulf coast, a few inconsiderate hunters, could wipe out the species for good. I only hope my memory of them is still achievable for future generations of birders. I feel deeply fortunate to have been able to see them.

We then pressed on further into the open water. This would be only a taste of the viewing pleasures and perfect photo ops to come.

American-Avocets,-Aransas-(3)

Here is a good comparison of American Avocets in both breeding plumage (the tan coloured birds on the right) and winter plumage (the lone bird at left). April is a transition month where you can witness both varieties within the same flock, as some individuals are slightly more advanced than others depending on genes and date of birth.

Terns of various species, this one a Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia, formerly Sterna caspia), provided beautiful study opportunities, both in flight, at rest, and in um... some other positions (more on those later...)

Terns of various species, this one a Royal  Tern (Thalasseus maximus, formerly Sterna maxima), provided beautiful study opportunities, both in flight, at rest, and in um… some other positions (more on those later…)

ROTE-with-weird-fish,-Aransas-(1)

Here is a Royal Tern  just having scored a particularly juicy fish. I’m told by friends current in fish taxonomy that it could be a burr fish or a smooth puffer. Happy for your input if you can enlighten me. Sure did look tasty…

Royal-Tern-porn-on-colony,-Aransas-(1)

Ah, the sternus  pièce de résistance… The blog post would be incomplete without a shot of some good ol’ fashioned tern porn.

For the next four hours, we quietly patrolled the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, stopping near heronries, tern breeding colonies, and rarely seen shores, all in the comfort of a low-skimming non-disturbing boat. It could not have been more perfect. The Captain knew exactly where to cut the already-quiet engine to allow for optimal light shining on the breeding birds in just the right light. It felt great to get such awesome of wildlife, knowing we weren’t causing them any stress. They went about their daily business and we were the creepy undetected snoops.

Plover-for-ID,-Aransas-(1)-TRY-2

Black-bellied Plover, non-breeding plumage. But is that the beginning of the black belly I see forming there?

ohno1_Atlantic-Bottlenose-Dolphin,-Aransas-(2)

…and the marine mammals certainly were out in full force once we got further into the Gulf. Behold a fin of the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

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Oh, and here’s the tail…

ohno3_Dolphin,-Aransas-(2)

Ahh there we go. They were so playful, cajoling with one another as we sailed on

CRCA,-Aransas-(2)

One of my very favourite birds when I travel south: the Crested Caracara. Just a badass beauty with as much charm as balls

WILL-looking-up,-Aransas

Willet looking up! We should all look up more sometimes. Even when it is at things that may eat us.

Tricolored-Heron-flight,-Ar

Moving toward a heronry, we followed this Reddish Egret…. at a quiet distance

TRHE,-Aransas-(2)

And then the rewards started. Lookit that breeding regalia. You KNOW he’s getting laid

SNEG,-Aransas

Whassat? Sorry, I can’t hear you over my fabulously yellow feet.

ROSP-flight,-Aransas

Roseate Spoonbills were also among the avifauna of the same colony that hosted many heron nests. Talk about bonus bird|

ROSP-flight,-Aransas-(1)

Coming in for a landing, leaving no pink behind (except maybe his own–we didn’t get that personal)

REEG-morph-duo,-Aransas-(1)-mating-ritual

I have no qualms with inter-morphial couples. Do you?

REEG,-Aransas-(3)

Reddish Egret, yellowish flowers

Marbled-Godwit,-Aransas

Oh my Godwit! This was the best view I’d ever been afforded of a godwit. We really got to examine the intricacy of the plumage; meanwhile, it foraged unphased. Awesomewit.

Marbled-Godwit,-Aransas-(5)

Look at EACH ONE of those feathers. Beautifully done. No engineer or artist can ever reproduce

LETE-vs.-ROTE-size-difference,-Aransas

A comparison shot I particularly enjoy: observe the slight and tiny Least Terns in the foreground, versus the relatively giant Royal Terns in the background. It really put things into perspective!

Least-Terns,-Aransas-(1)

A closeup of those leasty little beasties

GREG-landing-at-heronry,-Aransas-(5)

Flying toward the motherlode… The green lores I had never seen so vibrant. It’s like they were already Photoshopped

GREG-flight,-Aransas-(6)

And this dude, well, he just means goddamn business.

GREG-flight,-Aransas-(2)

Build it, and they (or at least he) will come

Great-tailed-Grarkle-female,-Aransas-(3)

But the heronry was not without its predators! We saw a Great-tailed Grackle couple rob a Great Blue Heron nest blind, devouring the eggs within it. Needless to say, the herons were PISSED

Great-blue-vs.-Great-white-heron,-Aransas

Same species, different morphs. Great White Heron! Incidentally, this was the couple that had an egg eaten by the grackles. Phalanxes they are not.

GBHE-Oreo,-Aransas

I had to: the Great Blue Heron Oreo

GBHE-love-affair,-Aransas-(

Oh get a room you two! Oh wait. You kinda already did. My bad. Proceed.

GBHE-landing-Aransas-(3)

Coming in for the lady. In fine form might I add.

Forsters-Royal-Tern-crashba

We saw a lot of tern bitch fights too. Sandwich Vs. Forsters.

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Black Skimmer

BLSK-planking,-(Aransas)-(2)-v2

Black Skimmer got tired. Lying down now. Screw off he says.

American-Oystercatchers,-Ar

American Oystercatchers. And they actually do catch oysters. Just not in this picture. Nobody said I was bird Ansel Adams, OK?

But inevitably, the amazing fishing boat journey had to come to an end. I must shout out some props to Captain Kevin, who was more than accommodating and went beyond the call of duty providing quality viewing without having to ever disturb the birds. This trip is definitely recommended if you’re a birder in Aransas and want to be shown a good time (wink wink, herons… wink wink).

After the boat trip, it was time to hit the road again, with sights on the southernmost part of Texas.

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  • William

    that was fun

  • Very cool! I’m from the Valley and I’ve never been. I’m so ashamed!!

  • Steven Tucker

    I’m glad this blog still has a pulse. Great post, makes me fiend for birding down there again…also, Great White Heron is a pretty damn good bird in Texas, for what its worth.

  • Sheryl Travis

    Love your blog and your pictures!! We are heading to Rockport for a few days of camping. Seeing your pictures has made me even more eager to get there!!

  • Larry N

    Wow! Great photos of a nice selection of bird species! I need to get around more.All my birding has been in Connecticut which isn’t bad but there’s a lot more to see out there.

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