From the Aransas NWR website:
In the freshwater and brackish marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a distinct and wild trumpeting call rings across the marsh. It is the whooping crane, Grus americana, the rarest crane species and one of the rarest birds in North America. All of the whooping cranes alive today, both wild and captive, are descendants of the last 15 remaining cranes that were found wintering at the Aransas Refuge in 1941.
The only natural wild flock of whooping cranes nests in Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Whoopers mate for life but have been known to re-mate following the death of their mate. They may survive up to 25 years in the wild and 35 to 40 years in captivity. Adults generally begin to produce eggs when they reach four or five years of age and then will lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick. In late spring and summer, their nests are built on small islands of bulrushes, cattails, and sedges. Dry years can result in heavy predation with few young surviving. In the fall, the migration begins. The whooping cranes will fly 2,500 miles from Wood Buffalo National Park to their wintering grounds on the Texas coast at Aransas Refuge.
We knew that when we arrived in Port Aransas we would be close to the wildlife refuge where the whooping cranes spend the winter, so we made plans with our friends, Rick & Karen, to do looking for them. We looked into boat tours, but they were pretty expensive, so we decided to take our bikes up to the wildlife refuge and do some biking and hiking. Sunday started out overcast and foggy in Port Aransas, but it was predicted to clear up in the afternoon, and the inland areas were supposed to clear even earlier. We stopped for a quick lunch at Whataburger in Rockport, and by the time we were on the road to the refuge, the sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day.
We stopped at the Contact Station to show our National Park passes, pick up a map, and get some tips on where to see the cranes. They’re using just a little building right now, since their Visitor Center has not yet been rebuilt after Hurricane Harvey. Armed with a plan, we unloaded the bikes and set out on the refuge road.
Our first stop was at a popular gator pond,and we were not disappointed.
Zoomed in . . .
We crossed the bridge over the gator pond, and walked along the Heron Flats Trail.
This trail took us to a small observation deck where there were several telescopes focused on the whooping cranes in the distance. We could see them really well through the telescope, but not so well without. As we walked up, a huge flock of cranes flew overhead . . . but too far away to get a good picture. It also didn’t help that I left the motorhome without my camera, so I only had my phone to take pictures with! Fortunately, Rick had his camera a zoom lens, and he shared a few photos with me.
The trail took us along the back side of the gator pond, where we spotted several more alligators enjoying the sunny afternoon.
And one more off by himself in another area of the pond.
We walked along the trail until we got to an area that was really muddy. Debating on whether or not to continue, some people coming the other way (with shoes completely covered in mud!) said that you never really get a good view of the cranes from the trail, so we turned around and headed back to the bikes.
We continued riding along on the refuge road, enjoying the view of the Gulf of Mexico, and keeping an eye out for cranes and other birds flying alongside of us.
We didn’t see any birds as we rode along, but we did see some interesting plants, and we really enjoyed the beautiful weather and bright blue sky.
Our next stop was the observation deck at Jones Lake, a small inland lake where ducks and other water birds like to hang out.
Still smiling at this point!
Five miles in from the Refuge entrance, we reached the Observation Tower that overlooks the coastal marshland and the Gulf of Mexico.
It was a long, winding ramp leading up to the tower – making us feel like we were in line for a roller coaster at Cedar Point!
There was a group of buzzards hanging out in a nearby tree,
but fortunately not on the tower or the walkway. Although there was plenty of evidence that they do spend a lot of time there – what a mess – yuck!
From the tower, we had a great view of the surrounding area,
and were able to spot some wildlife – deer in the marsh, and a great blue heron.
Our timing was perfect to as we arrived at the top of the tower -- a whooping crane flew past and we (OK, Rick) w ere able to get a few pictures.
In this first shot, it almost looks like a pelican . . .
but there are the characteristic black-tipped wings!
There he goes!
It was time for us to get going, too. We had five miles to ride back to the Jeeps, and Karen wasn’t looking forward to it! Plus, as always happens, the wind had taken a turn and was blowing strongly against us as we made our way back!
It felt like it was taking twice as long to get back to the parking lot!
The moon was starting to make an appearance already!
The last couple of miles were brutal, especially next to the open water, but we all made it back! AS the sun was beginning to set, the deer were coming out, too . . . there must have been 30 of them hanging out around the entrance, so I stopped to take a couple pictures before they ran off.
Rick & Karen headed straight back to the RV Resort, but Tom & I had to stop at H.E.B for some groceries on the way back, so we stopped for a light dinner, too.
Pizza, accompanied by live entertainment,
and a beautiful sunset as we approached Rockport!
It turned out to be a beautiful day, and we were glad to spend it with friends!