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2020-03-17 Aransas By Sea

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias
I met this bird on the docks before our boat was ready to board. My third day of exploration of Aransas NWR was a memorable one. I boarded the tour boat the “Skimmer” and got schooled by Captian Tommy Moore on a three plus hour cruise of the back-bays and waterways beyond the view of the public from the tour roads on the reserve.

I arrived at 215 North Fulton Beach Road in Fulton, Texas at 8:30am. Our departure aboard the Skimmer was scheduled for 9am, so I had some time to assemble my gear and wander the wharf looking for interesting subjects. It didn’t take long before I found Purple Martins gathering atop a tall spire on one boat tied to the docks. The pictures I took were dark colored birds silhouetted against a bright gray sky, and not the most ideal conditions for image captures, but I had fun with them anyway. Later, a close encounter with a Great Blue Heron who walked by was nice. Ruddy Turnstones foraged along the sea washed concrete at the docks, and a Lesser Scaup hen floated in close to the turnstones looking for foraging opportunities. I hadn’t yet boarded the Skimmer and already it was a wonderful day.

We launched on time with 16 passengers, or about half capacity. Fewer folks on board held the promise that everyone could have excellent views from the deck. We sailed about seven miles to reach Blackjack Peninsula, where Aransas National Wildlife Refuge hosts the winter home for all the wild Whooping Cranes that breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

When summer ends, and the newborn birds can fly, the parents lead their families south 2600 miles to the Central Texas Gulf Coast at Aransas NWR. Crane successes have been connected to the abundance of Blue Crabs (Callinectes sapidus), which do well when there is ample fresh water supplied from local rivers. After feeding all winter on invertebrates and small fish, and spring arrives, the birds migrate again to Canada to begin the cycle again. The crane population crashed in the early 1940s to an all-time low of 15 birds. Today there are over 500 birds. This is still a far cry from the historical estimates of 10,000+ birds before Europeans arrived in North America.

We got under way and travelled nine miles over Aransas Bay, where we approached Blackjack Peninsula. We met terns, gulls and ducks on our crossing, but our hearts were set on cranes. For the next six miles, Captain Tommy Moore did his best to find cranes that weren’t a quarter mile away, but we couldn’t get the intimate encounters we’d hoped for. Finally we turned back towards Rockport and the captain asked us all to use our powers “will up” some cranes for the ride back. Something must have worked, because we found cranes much closer on our return trip. Two episodes were especially interesting. First while we were getting our first good views of the cranes, a coyote walked between us and the cranes, causing the nearest bird to sound it’s “whooping” alarm call. The coyote knew better than to approach the great birds, but the big crane put the entire neighborhood on notice.

Whooping Crane - Grus americana
One crane has captured a Blue Crab and warns the other stay back by stomping its feet in the water when the other is showing too much interest. My third day of exploration of Aransas NWR was a memorable one. I boarded the tour boat the “Skimmer” and got schooled by Captain Tommy Moore on a three plus hour cruise of the back-bays and waterways beyond the view of the public from the tour roads on the reserve.

Our second close encounter was highlighted when one crane caught a Blue Crab and its companion (not likely its mate) showed too much interest in the prize. The owner of the crab postured and stomped its feet in the shallow water, splashing water ten feet in the air. It was quite a show. When the crab meal was finally consumed, the two birds wandered off, pals once again.

When we returned to port and disembarked, we said our goodbyes to Captain Tommy Moore, and the good ship Skimmer. I set my sights on finding a place to hunker down and resume processing the large inventory of images I’d been collecting. As you will soon learn, I wasn’t done adding images to my collection this day.

The subjects I met this day were American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, Brown Pelican, Bufflehead, Coyote, Crested Caracara, Double-Crested Cormorant, Dowitcher Species, Forster’s Tern, Great Blue Heron, Herring Gull, Laughing Gull, Lesser Scaup, Long-Billed Curlew, Neotropic Cormorant, Purple Martin, Royal Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, Snowy Egret, Turkey Vulture, Whooping Crane, Willet.

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