Inland Birder in a Coastal Paradise
Every birder needs a change of scenery at times, particularly when it is warm in South Texas but the Panhandle is still experiencing snow, wind and cold. So Rohn and I headed to the coast for Spring Break 2022, excited to camp on the beach at Goose Island State Park and to spend some time with our dear friends, Tim and Lee Ann Watson. Instead of Sandhill Cranes (or actually, in addition to) that we can routinely see in the Panhandle, we sought out Whooping Cranes that are rarities everywhere except Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Thanks to an excellent birding guide, Captain Tommy on The Skimmer, who runs Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures, we were able to see almost 20 Whooping Cranes on a three-hour waterfront birding tour of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The tallest American bird, at around 5 feet in height, the Whooping Cranes were easy to spot all along the marshy coastline of Aransas NWR.
Having no experience with Whooping Cranes, I assumed that they flocked and fed together like Sandhill Cranes do in the Texas Panhandle. But the Whooping Cranes were spread out in family groups of twos and threes across several miles of sea coast. Capt. Tommy explained that Whooping Cranes are very territorial, and so each family stays far apart from others while wintering in Texas. Fortunately, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is huge and full of their favorite food, Blue Crabs, so there are (at least for now) adequate resources for the 400+ cranes that arrive in the Rockport area from Canada each October or November.
My bird list on the boat trip was certainly not limited to Whooping Cranes. I counted 50 different species of birds that day, most of them water and shore birds, including (l to r, below) Caspian Terns, Osprey, Great Egrets, Long-billed Curlews, both kinds of Cormorants, Common Loons, Brown Pelicans, Reddish Egrets, Snowy Egrets, American Oystercatchers, American White Pelicans and Tri-colored Herons.
One of the most interesting sights on the boat adventure was a small island, more like just a sandbar in one of the bays, that was a protected Great Blue Heron rookery. Breeding and nesting seasons were in full swing during our mid-March trip, so the rookery was hopping.
No boat trip on the Texas coast would be complete without spotting some Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and Capt. Tommy didn't disappoint. We saw several that day. When I was a kid growing up in Arlington, my parents often took us visit relatives near Port Aransas. I can remember that the thrill of the ferry ride to Mustang Island was always enhanced by seeing dolphins surfing the ferry's wake. My mom and dad referred to them as porpoises, just like they called vultures "buzzards". Regardless of their terminology, they both helped instill in me a love of wildlife.
Staying in the bayfront campsites at Goose Island State Park is also a treat for wildlife lovers like Rohn and me. Dolphins, including a momma and baby, fished just off shore as we sat on the beach in perfect mid-70s weather. When we toured the incomparable Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi that week, we discovered that these dolphins as adults weigh between 400-500 pounds!
Our campground had a marshy area just steps from the front door of our RV that yielded lots of interesting coastal birds, like Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, Laughing Gulls, Pelicans, Egrets, Herons, Sandpipers and more. And the area near The Big Tree (an ancient Live Oak) in the park was populated with four more Whooping Cranes drinking from a freshwater pond along with Sandhill Cranes, while gorgeous pink Roseate Spoonbills gathered in the background.
Goose Island also features and actually maintains (I'm looking at you, Palo Duro Canyon State Park) two excellent bird blinds within the wooded area of the park. An textured Inca Dove that arrived in the blind one morning was a lifer for me.
The bird blinds also produced a Black-and-White Warbler, an immature Indigo Bunting, a Ladderback Woodpecker, both male and female Black-Chinned Hummingbirds, and a Gray Catbird, along with the usual assortment of White-winged Doves, Cardinals, House Sparrows, Black Vultures and dozens of female Red-winged Blackbirds.
Not surprisingly, I was pricing retirement homes in the Rockport area on Zillow while we camped. But alas, full-time jobs and obligations awaited Rohn and me in Amarillo, so we hauled the camper back to the windy, dusty and at the moment, extremely drought-striken Texas Panhandle. I will just have to be satisfied with an annual pilgrimage to the Texas coast to enjoy the avian riches the area offers. Fortunately, bird migration season is beginning in the Panhandle to keep me entertained. . . .