Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Search of Whooping Cranes

One of the big attractions here in the Fulton/Rockport area is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and its population of Whooping Cranes. On Monday of last week we took a trip on the Skimmer out of Rockport to visit the Refuge and see cranes and other shore birds. What an experience! Captain Tommy Moore was a very knowledgeable guide. He knew where to find the Whooping Cranes, and skillfully maneuvered the Skimmer onto the beach and cut off the engines so we could observe the birds. Our group consisted of photograpers and serious birders, so we took full advantage of the information and the opportunity to watch and photograph. It was a fantastic day, clear, bright and calm. We were fortunate to see 31 of the Refuge's Whoopers, many of them quite close.

The first Whoopers we saw were a pair known as the Lobsticks. They are named for Lobstick Creek in northern Canda where they spend summers and hatch their young. This pair is unique in that the male was fledged in 1978 and is now almost 33 years old, quite venerable for a Whooping Crane. Whoopers mate for life, and normally live 15-20 years in the wild. He looks pretty good for an old man, doesn't he!

Although the Lobstick male is not banded, observers can identify him because the cranes are very territorial and return to the same locations each spring and fall. They defend their homes and drive off any other cranes that try to move in. This year, only the Lobstick male and female returned to Aransas. They did not bring a young crane with them. Either they did not have a successful nesting season, or the youngster died or was taken by a predator.

Male and female Whooping Cranes look alike, except that the male is larger. They stand almost 5 feet tall, and have a wingspan of 7 feet. In flight, their black wingtips are quite striking, and you can recognize them by their necks extended straight forward and their legs trailing behind well past their tails.  These cranes are searching for blue crabs in the marshes alongside the bay.  The second bird has a small friend which I think may be a Lesser Yellowlegs.  However, I'm a photographer, not an experienced birder, so I'll cheerfully accept a correction if someone has better information. 

Juvenile Whooping Cranes have a mixture of brown and white body feathers with black wingtips. We observed this juvenile and his or her parents searching for blue crabs in the marshes beside the bay. Not all juveniles can be identified, but this one carries bright bands on one leg and an antenna and radio transmitter on the other.  He should be easy to identify as he moves back and forth between Aransas and Canada.
The parents stay close to the youngster until they return to their nesting grounds in Canada. Then they will drive him away and raise a new family. The young cranes band together in groups called cohorts until they reach maturity at about 3 years. Then they choose mates, find territories and begin the cycle all over again.

As we returned from our trip to see the cranes, Captain Tommy brought the Skimmer carefully alongside a Great Blue Heron rookery. Great Blue Herons are among the first of the resident shore birds to breed and nest, sometimes as early as December or January. The rookery was crowded with herons. In breeding plumage, they are quite spectacular with long, trailing feathers and bright faces.

We saw a number of smaller shore birds on our trip, including this rare Long-Tailed Duck that was just bobbing along by itself in the bay.   I'll admit, it just looks like a duck to me, but all the birders on the boat were very excited to see it.

It was a great trip, and one we highly recommend if you're in the area.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Skunked" Again

We're still having a great time on the Texas coast, and have recommendations for many places to go and things to see if you're in the area. However, processing photos and updating the blog took a back seat this week. We had another adventure....but not the kind we recommend.

We planned a trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday, but stopped en route to let the dogs stretch their legs in the farmlands between Fulton and the Refuge. We found a deserted dirt road between plowed fields. Perfect, wouldn't you think? Not really! There were several abandoned barns and outbuildings 100 yards or so off the road, and the Bagley Pack made a beeline for them. We tried to call them back, but they heeded another call. By the time we got there, Lucky Dog and Nickie had found a skunk and were doing their best to annihilate it. The dogs won.....or maybe the skunk did. It didn't survive, but it did exact its revenge.

We spent most of the rest of the day washing least L.D. and Nickie. I'm convinced that Feathers whispered in Dakota's ear and told her to stay away! She didn't participate in the skunk eradication, but she also didn't spend the rest of the day being scrubbed with scent-neutralizing soap. Fortunately, one of the local vets had a skunk-odor-emulsifying product which worked fairly well. It's at least as effective as the hydrogen peroxide-baking soda-dish detergent mix we used the last time. (Unfortunately this wasn't their "first rodeo" in the skunk department.)

Life goes on. We're trying to remove the odor from the inside of the Tracker and will see in a couple of days if we need to bathe them again. If I can get past our "adventures," I'll post the highlights of our Rockport/Fulton stay, and images from our trip on the "Skimmer" to see the Whooping Cranes. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Feathers and Scales

We've had sunshine and moderate temperatures for several days now, and everyone here is positively giddy.  Walking dogs (and lots of people have them) in cold, windy, weather isn't fun for anyone, except maybe the dogs. 

On Saturday, we drove 35 miles east to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to stretch our legs and see if there were birds and other critters out and about.  The spring migration hasn't started yet, so we only saw a few resident birds.  The Whooping Cranes were hiding, but we did see several flocks of Long-billed Curlew alongside the road on our way in.  There were also graceful White Ibis feeding in marshlands along one of the trails we walked.  The White Ibis is a medium-sized wading bird with red face, red legs, and a long decurved bill.  In flight the adults like this one are especially striking, with black wing-tips offsetting their snowy feathers.  Maybe I'll get a shot of one in flight before we leave.

The splotchy brown Ibis are juveniles.  We almost missed the one on the bank because it so perfectly camouflaged.  

We also saw a number of these small, sparrow-like birds.  They should be called a Yellow-rumped Something or Other.  However, so far I haven't been able to find them in my Peterson Field Guide.  I'll let you know when I identify them.  

A raccoon skittered along the edge of the pond but didn't come out for photographs and we also spied an armadillo.  When we rounded a turn in the path and surprised one of these iconic Texas critters, the dogs almost pulled me off my feet.  Fortunately I was able to stop them before we all disappeared into the bushes after the 'dillo. 

Aransas also has a healthy population of American Alligators.  We were advised to keep all pets on leash, and I understand why.  As we walked the trails we saw these two 'gators, which we estimated to be about 10 feet long. 

We didn't have to drive all the way to the wildlife refuge to see birds, though.  Right in our RV park is a sizable flock of Black-bellied Tree Ducks, also known as Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.  We see them beside the ponds and on the water during the day.  Then, as the sun sets they take off and soar overhead in shrilly-whistling "V" formations.  As you can see in this photo, they have long pink legs and a coral-pink bill.
The ponds at Bay View have signs warning us to watch out for alligators.  We were told that at least 18 were removed from the park a couple of years ago after they threatened guests and their pets. So far as we can see, there are no more in residence, thank goodness!  However, we'll keep the dogs out of the water just the same.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Post from the Coast

John's cedar allergies finally convinced us to get out of Central Texas for a few weeks until the pollen count goes down. On Thursday, January 27, we traveled south some 200 miles to Rockport/Fulton (or, if you're in Fulton, Fulton/Rockport), Texas. We, along with at least half the populations of Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and a number of other northern states, are on the Texas coast between Corpus Christi and Port Lavaca. We plan to be here until the end of February, or possibly into March, depending on the weather and how the stars line up.

We're camped east of Fulton in Bay View RV Resort. The park is only a couple of miles from the Copano Bay Causeway, where this photo was taken.  We're about 3-4 miles from the downtown areas of Fulton and Rockport, so shopping is convenient, as are several good restaurants. Bay View is an older RV park, with spacious sites and an abundance of large live oak trees. The people here are very friendly, and most are "Snowbirds" and will spend several months on the coast.

There are lots of activities at the clubhouse and water aerobics at one of the two pools. (However, it's a little chilly for me to venture into the water, even to work up a sweat!) There are several ponds on the permises, and one called "The Swamp" that is located behind our site. There are no mosquitoes this time of year, so we just enjoy the chorus of frogs and the lovely reflections.  (It's too cold and windy for photos today, but I'll post some as soon as the weather improves.)

We spent some time over the weekend getting settled, hooking up the satellite dish, etc. Then, on Monday of last week did some exploring and took the dogs to the beach at Port Aransas. (The "beach" at Fulton/Rockport is mostly shells.)  When we left camp, we had bright sunshine.  However, by the time we arrived at the ferry dock, Mustang Island was covered by a dense fog bank.  The dogs didn't care, though.  The beach was a big hit, but they didn't exactly know how to handle the water.  It kept advancing and receding, unlike the stock tank at the farm. It also didn't taste good, as Nickie and Dakota can attest.

We didn't stay long in Rockport, though.  Reacting to weather reports that predicted temperatures below freezing for several consecutive days, last Tuesday we left the RV at Bay View and raced back home. It was a good thing we did. Evening readings in Austin fell into the 'teens, and temperatures didn't rise above freezing for three days. We burned a lot of firewood, but had no damage or serious problems. We did get a bit of snow, which is always a treat since it's rare for Austin. Lucky Dog was happy to stay inside with me, but the 22 degree temperatures didn't faze Nickie and Dakota. They had a great romp in the white stuff.

We drove back to Rockport on January 4, and had several pleasant, sunny days before another cold front arrived this morning. The temperature dropped from an overnight low of 60 degrees to a windy 35 at noon. We're staying inside for a while!