SAN MARCOS DAILY RECORD

Whooping, sandhill cranes taking center stage in Texas

Jan 11, 2010 | San Marcos Daily Record by Jerry Hall | Related Press

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Two really big birds take center stage this time of year, attracting the attention of birders nationwide. They are the whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

In Texas, the whooping crane returns in late fall from its breeding grounds in Canada to spend the winter in coastal marshes, most notably at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Some 244 birds, 223 adults and 21 chicks, made the 2,500-mile migratory flight this year. Surviving birds will take off in April for the return flight. Unfortunately, blue crab numbers are down again this year, putting stress on the Texas flock.

With snowy white feathers and a red head patch, this noble crane stands almost five feet tall, weighs 15 pounds and has a 7-foot wingspan. The black tips on its wings are only visible when it flies. John Tveten described its call as “ker-loo ker-lee-loo.”

People flock to Texas to see this tallest of all North American birds and charter boats operate out of Rockport and Port Aransas to take birders up close to see them. Whooping crane numbers dropped to only 15 birds in 1941 and the species is still on the endangered list.

If you’d like to see these lovely birds, a good opportunity will be the Whooping Crane Festival scheduled Feb. 25-28 in Port Aransas. Call 800 45-COAST or visit whoopingcranefestival.org for more information.

The sandhill crane is also found in Texas during winter months. A large gray bird with a red head patch, it stands almost four feet tall and weighs about 10 pounds. Tveten described its call as “a rolling, trumpeting cry, gar-oo-oo gar-oo-oo, echoing back and forth within the flock.” According to my friend Mavis Hampton, of El Paso, “You will never forget the sound.”

Sandhill cranes can be found at locales throughout the state, including farm fields outside Martindale and east of New Braunfels.

For prime viewing, it’s hard to beat Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in the Texas Panhandle. This refuge features three lakes, with some 600 acres of water for wildlife when all are full. It covers 5,809 acres and hosts thousands of sandhill cranes from December through mid-February. The all-time peak record was 250,000 cranes in February, 1981, and this year, some 110,000 cranes have been counted.

In addition to cranes, golden eagles and an occasional bald eagle are present and ducks and geese are usually abundant. There are nature trails and a wildlife viewing platform for visitors. Call 806 946-3341 for information.

There are 15 species of cranes in the world and I find it encouraging that the only two in North America can be found in abundance each winter in Texas. If you’ve never seen these tall, stately birds, make this the season you make their acquaintance.

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