Aransas: refuge for `whoopers' and bird watchers

THE voice on the loudspeaker broke my reverie in the warm November sun. ``On the left side of the boat,'' boomed Capt. Harry Sloat, ``at about 10 o'clock, is a pair of whoopers.'' Binoculars in hand, I joined the stampede to the railing, where some of the group were already straining for the first sight of North America's tallest and perhaps most regal bird, the rare whooping crane.

Like the thousands every year who visit the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, I had come to see the majestic cranes. Each fall, the whoopers, named for their buglelike call, fly 2,400 miles from their summer nesting grounds in Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park to their wintering area on the Texas coast.

The first cold winds of November bring several pairs of the giant birds to Aransas. By December, most have arrived for a sojourn that lasts through March.

There are other rare birds that arouse interest, but few command crowds the way the whoopers do. With long sinuous necks, satin white feathers, regal red crests, and a humanlike habit of choosing a mate for life, the whoopers invoke awe from both hardened bird watchers and the merely interested.

The whooping crane came close to extinction in 1941. Farmers and developers had destroyed much of its marshland habitat in the central United States, while hunters sought both its feathers and its eggs.

As a result, the wintering flock in Texas dropped to 15. Mounting public outcry finally led to the bird's designation as an endangered species.

Biologists and wildlife experts began to work to save the few that were left. From 1984 to 1985 the Texas flock numbered 94 birds. This year, wildlife experts expect close to 115 to show up in Texas, the highest number since recovery efforts began.

My trip to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge began with a visit by car. The 54,829-acre refuge, about a 30-minute drive north of Rockport, was created in 1937, when San Antonio lawyer Leroy Denman donated his ranch to the federal government.

Dubbed ``Blackjack Peninsula'' because of the scattered blackjack oaks, the refuge is home to deer, turkey, javelina, peregrine falcons, eagles, and the rare Attwater's prairie chicken, in addition to the whooping crane.

A sign inside the door of the refuge's Wildlife Interpretive Center indicated that only nine whoopers had arrived.

``They trickle in very slowly, in family groups of two or three,'' said Frank Johnson, refuge manager for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Unseasonably warm weather had also delayed their arrival, he explained.

Mr. Johnson, who works closely with representatives from the National Audubon Society to protect the whooping cranes, explained that the objective of the recovery plan was 40 nesting pairs of whoopers, over 200 birds total. This year, 28 nests were found in Canada.

A fog blanketed Rockport the next morning. The Connie Hagar Bird Sanctuary - a narrow strip of beach named for the woman who helped Rockport earn world-class status in birding circles - was barely visible from my hotel across the road. Cormorants, gulls, and pelicans stood quietly on piers leading into whiteness.

By nine o'clock, the fog lifted. With 23 of us on board, the Lucky Day chugged out of Rockport Harbor, past shrimp boats and silent oil platforms, and out to the Intracoastal Canal, where we headed north to the marshes bordering the refuge.

On the way, we passed the bird-covered Audubon Islands and Dead Man's Island. Captain Sloat pointed out the dangerous reefs that had challenged the early settlers trying to land their ships. The pirate Jean Lafitte reportedly took refuge behind these reefs, burying his treasure nearby.

Motoring past a rare brown pelican perched on a pylon, we spotted our first pair of whoopers just behind the sign marking the refuge.

With their long necks extended downward, the cranes were feeding on crabs and clams in one of the marsh ponds.

The whooper is very territorial, Sloat said over the loud speaker. The bird returns each year to the same spot within the wildlife refuge, defending that spot vigorously against other whoopers, while ignoring other birds.

Once it arrives in Texas, the whooper, whose black-tipped wings measure up to 7 feet, rarely flies. ``They're walking machines,'' commented Sloat. ``They can out-walk a man.''

After giving the group time to study the birds, the captain continued cruising along the Intracoastal Canal in search of other whoopers.

To our left, marshy strips of land belonging to the Aransas refuge stretched back to low, wind-sculpted live oak and red bay trees lining the banks. To our right, a thin strip of island shielded the marsh from the bay beyond.

On either side of the channel, birds of all kinds peppered the ponds and the wet, tall grass. Sloat pointed out a snowy egret, ``the bird with the golden slippers.''

Slightly beyond, blending in with the grass, a sandhill crane - smaller and grayer than the whooper - sat quietly. The sandhill crane, a cousin of the whooping crane, has been used by wildlife biologists as a surrogate parent in an attempt to build the whooper flock. Each year, unhatched whooper eggs are flown from Canada to Idaho, where the sandhill cranes hatch them and raise them as their own.

Besides the famous whooping crane, the Aransas refuge attracts some 320 species of birds. ``Sometimes in one pond you'll see eight to ten kinds of birds and four or five kinds of ducks,'' said Sloat. Two major North American flyways or migration paths converge here, making it a birder's paradise.

By the end of the morning excursion, the group had spotted 13 whoopers, four more than the official count. The new ones must have come in during the night, Sloat said. He would report them to the refuge officials who conduct a periodic count by helicopter. Practical information

The refuge is 28 miles north of Rockport on State Route 35. Hours are sunrise to sunset. No camping is allowed, but the refuge has hiking trails and picnic spots. The best time to visit is from November to March, when the whooping cranes are there. The refuge does not operate tours to see the birds but will supply a list of tour boat operators in Rockport. Charters for fishing are also available in Rockport. The Aransas Wildlife Refuge's address is Box 100, Austwell, TX 77950; telephone (512) 286-3559. For places to stay in Rockport, contact the Chamber of Commerce at (512) 729-6445. Condominiums and hotel rooms are available.

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