My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Monday, January 14, 2013

In Search of Whooping Cranes

A friend and I decided to go birding around Rockport, Texas. We planed  to take the Whooping Crane tour with Captain Tommy Moore, on the Skimmer. I have to get my Skimmer tour fix every few years and have been out with him several times and am never disappointed in him. He is a fantastic birder and describes field marks on birds while I'm still trying to find the bird. 

I was going on to Corpus Christi  to visit friends, and even planned a four-day camp-out with several of those  friends at Goose Island State Park.. This got cancelled when heavy rains, hail, and high winds were predicted. I ended up begging a corner of Becki and Robin's room. (Becki brought her niece, another great photographer with her.)  My friend, Winnie drove up to meet us and then, after this tour,  we camped one night at Goose Island State Park and visited with a third friend the next day.

 I came down between storms and the clouds were often dramatic. I had to stop for  a picture of these clouds.

Becki, Robin and I arrived at the Skimmer parking lot just at dawn,  to find Winnie already there. The sky was still cloudy but the sun was peaking out.

But soon we were registered for the trip and were waiting in line for the boat to be ready for us to board. Winnie and I knew Becki but were meeting Robin for the first time so we enjoyed chatting while we waited.

My friends waiting to board

Boarders being greeted by Capt. Tommy
As soon as we listened to the safety talk, down below, my group spent the rest of the trip on the top deck.  The temperature was in the low 50's when we started so everyone was pretty bundled up. But we were all ready to take pictures.

Becky watching birds as we leave the marina

A few of the  birds on a gravel bar

Marsh waders

Roseate spoonbill and tricolor
 Normally we see about 60 - 65 species on the three hour trip and see thousands of birds.  But this tour was very sad because the whoopers and other wintering birds are in serious trouble. The bay is not getting enough fresh water, so invertebrates and blue crabs are in short supply.  The cranes are not staying on their territories but are having to range around looking for food.  They are eating acorns and corn, both not their normal diets. During last winter, which had the same problem, over 20 cranes died of starvation. To make matters worse, the refuge is no longer counting the cranes but only doing a rough estimate.  I think it is off +/- 60 cranes, which out of a population of 250 - 350 covers up the ones that die.  A family of whoopers normally defends a territory that the Skimmer can approach within feet of. They are often only yards from the boat when Captain Tommy  stops, asks us not to talk and then tells us about the family. But the birds were not even on their territory this year. This is in comparison to several years ago, when we saw sixteen whoopers at fairly close range. 

We saw both few species of birds and fewer numbers of each species. Great blue herons, white and brown pelicans,  laughing gulls,  and cormorants seemed to occur in normal numbers but all other species were much in diminished numbers. Usually we see several large groups of ducks and see several species.  This time we only saw a few ducks. I didn't keep notes but I think we only saw a couple of green-winged teals, maybe a pair of blue-winged teals, one or two pintails, a pair of mottled ducks, a couple or red-breasted mergansers, and a small flock of bufflehead. Wading birds were also in short supply, except for a lot of western willets.

The only whooper pair got close to

Brown and white pelicans
 On the way back, Capt. Tommy saw some dolphins and took off, making a big stern wave.  The dolphins rushed over to surf it. (I too love surfing off the stern wave of idling fishing boats when I'm kayaking but could never do this.) I tried my best to take a picture of one of them leaping out of the water but neither my camera nor I was fast enough. This guy rode in the same place relative to me for several seconds.

Bottle-nosed dolphin

This trip was still wonderful and we had a beautiful, clear sky.  We caught the only fully sunny day between two storms.

As I get ready to publish this, I'm packing up to rush back to Houston for a haircut and a doctor's appointment.  Then I'll get back to Galveston and start getting ready for a long weekend of play.  Winnie, and a new paddler, Gail, will be coming up to stay with Natalie and me and go to the kayak club meeting on Thursday, play around Galveston on Friday, paddle with the kayak club on Saturday and go on a private paddle with Natalie and me and other friends on Sunday. They'll return home on Monday and I plan to take a big nap then