January 28-31, 2019
Whoopers… aka Whooping Cranes. These are the largest birds in North America. They are on the Federal Endangered list. At one point only 15 birds were located at their southern migration point at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now there are over 500 and we got to see some. Holding out for a campsite at Goose Island State Park worked out perfectly. You can see Whoopers right at the park or near its borders.
We camped in the wooded loop as the waterfront sites were damaged in Hurricane Harvey and are closed. You can hang out there during the day but all overnight camping is back in the woods. That was fine with us, I love trees.
While we had veered over to the coast primarily for the Whoopers, we were thrilled to see numerous other shore birds. We saw flocks of Roseate Spoonbills, tons of pelicans (white and brown), every heron, egret and shorebird we’ve ever heard of (and some we hadn’t) and flocks of big, beautiful Sandhill Cranes. When we walked the forest paths we were surrounded by birds. It was really cool. The park has a salt marsh right along the shore that is visited by a pair of Whoopers and there are a few privately owned ponds right near the park’s “Big Tree” that almost always have a pair of whoopers feeding. More were spotted in the adjacent bay. We learned that each pair of Whoopers needs 25 acres of marsh to winter in and they defend it from other whoopers. That means you’ll usually only see an adult pair and possibly their one young if any survived. They lay two eggs but usually only successfully rear one chick. We haven’t spotted a young one yet. They keep their distance so a good telephoto lens is a must if you plan to photograph them. Binoculars or a spotting scope and tripod are also excellent to bring along. We went back an hour before sunset and got to hear the whoopers calling to each other as they took flight to settle down in the back marshes for the night. VERY cool!!! It seems it’s OK to gather at night but during the daytime feeding, they do not share space.
The Big Tree I mentioned is a huge Live Oak that is over 1,000 years old. NOT A TYPO – that says OVER ONE THOUSAND years old. It has withstood floods, drought and numerous hurricanes, and yet, there it stands among its children, grandchildren, great… well, you get the drift. You can find it by following the signs that simply say “Big Tree”.
Goose Island State Park sponsors free bird walks four days a week and if you have any interest at all, they are a do-not-miss item. We learned a ton of stuff and saw birds we would have overlooked on our own. The birders (Les and Jane) that do this for the park are excellent and can identify just about any bird they find and then tell you how to identify them. They have been bird hosts at this park for 16 years! That’s impressive. They have several feeding stations around the park that they keep filled and put out lists of which birds have been seen. Their goal is to turn EVERYONE into avid birders. The walks are free. Check for posted times and get a free ticket for the restricted area walk at the Big Tree. NOTE: Campers at Goose Island can get their Big Tree Bird Walk ticket at any time but those NOT staying in the park have to wait until the morning of the walk and hope there is still space. That’s another good reason to stay at the state park. Budget for their fees, though. Texas charges the daily entry fee for each person for each day regardless of whether you are camping there. For our four day stay, that entry fee amounted to an additional $40. We just went ahead and bought their $70 annual pass which includes a few nights of discounted camping.
Pics from Aransas Wildlife Refuge
Our trip to the actual Aransas Wildlife Refuge was shorter than planned. We hit on a Tuesday and the visitor station is closed on Monday and Tuesday (the website lies and says it’s open every day – ignore that). So, no visitor info but we got a map from the box and rolled out into the refuge. It was about 40 degrees and the wind was ripping. We got out and checked out every viewing platform. We stood with feet apart, braced and leaning into the wind while we tried to hold binoculars and cameras steady. It was an adventure. However, we saw whoopers, lots of wading birds and a mega flight of thousands of mixed birds that swooped into a little bay area. They just kept on coming. WOW! When we told the bird pros about it, they asked what types of birds we saw… being bird weenies, we said “uh, birds”. We do know there were some wading birds, terns, pelicans (white and brown), some diving birds (cormorants?) and more. We did the wildlife drive and saw lots of deer but nothing else. We were hoping for Javelina – little pigs that are native to this area but they were probably huddled somewhere warm.
Many people told us to skip the refuge altogether as you can see more birds closer to you at the park and along the shores. I might agree with the closer up birds but the refuge has this vastness that is beautiful on its own. We do recommend that you dress appropriately if you plan to spend any length of time on that 60 foot viewing platform. It was awesome, but seriously cold. We could have spent hours hiking and watching from the platforms if we weren’t in instant freeze mode.
So visit Goose Island and Aransas and pretend to be a birder and enjoy nature.
Here’s Holly signing off… Whoop, whoop!