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Memories of Aransas NWR

Located 50 miles north of Corpus Christi (Texas), and primarily on the Blackjack peninsula, the main unit of the 115,324-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is protected from the brunt of the harshest weather by Matagorda Island, part of a long chain of barrier islands extending down the Texas coast from Galveston to South Padre. The reserve was established by Executive Order 7784 in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and is the largest Fish and Wildlife Service protected area in the state of Texas.

The story of Aransas NWR is closely linked to the rare and endangered Whooping Crane. In 1941, when only 15 whooping cranes survived in the wild (21 including captive birds), the iconic bird became an emblem of alarm and concern for all endangered and threatened species. Aransas became a focal point of the efforts to rescue the species from extinction. Today, the mild winters, bay waters and abundant food supply attract more than 400 species of birds, including the Whooping Crane, North America’s rarest bird. 

After a long slow but steady increase in population, in the early 2000s the population increase quickened, and in 2019 they showed a 17% increase from 2018. The most recent census shows a count of over 800 cranes in four different groups, the largest being those that navigate between Canada and Texas annually. We may never see the flocks of 10,000 that graced the continent in pre-Columbian times, but researchers believe if we reach a population of a thousand birds, we will have achieved a golden milestone.

I’d heard about the plight of Whooping Cranes since Mrs. Hohensheldt, my fourth-grade teacher, first described them to our class. When I began making plans to visit Texas in the spring of 2020, at the top of my list of “must see” places, was the winter home for these exceptional birds at Aransas NWR. I finally got to cross off my visit here from my bucket-list in mid-March.

While the lion’s share of the world’s Whooping Crane population spend their winters here, getting eyes on these five-foot tall birds from the auto tour roads or the hiking trails is a sketchy proposition. For such a large bird, they seem expert in staying out of sight. By far, the most effective way to see these birds is to book a tour aboard a boat, and the best tour boat I know of is the Skimmer out of Rockport. During my first day (Sunday) standing watch at the observation deck at Heron Flats, a pair of cranes nearly a mile away teased those of us who waited in vain for them to move closer. Several fellow watchers mentioned the tour boat “Skimmer” and her captain, Tommy Moore. I returned to Heron Flats the following morning and met the cranes as they walked into a more favorable location that was denied us the previous day, but two days later (Tuesday) I followed the advice of those fellow watchers and booked passage aboard the Skimmer. The ride was all I could have hoped for.

I don’t mean to give the impression that the only reason to visit this reserve is to see cranes. Wild places such as Aransas NWR hosts an array of mammalian and avian wildlife. Interested readers might enjoy reviewing the accounts of my past visits here:  2020-03-15 My First Day At Aransas NWR, 2020-03-16 Aransas NWR Day 2, 2020-03-17 Aransas By Sea, 2021-03-02 Tuesday Morning At Aransas NWR, and 2021-03-12 Friday at Aransas NWR.

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