Wednesday, January 29, 2014

For the Birds

The weather here continues to be unseasonably cold and very windy.  However, there was one glorious day between last week’s frigid Friday and this week’s miserable conditions.  Sunday was sunny, brisk and not too breezy, a great day to go to Rockport and take the Skimmer out to photograph Whooping Cranes and other birds.  While Captain Tommy identified the birds for us, David set up on the lower deck and I opted for a spot upstairs.  

The Skimmer carries a maximum of 32 passengers, and on this early-morning trip most of us were either birders or photographers.  I didn't immediately recognize some of the smaller shore birds, but am slowly getting better at identifying them.  It's not hard to recognize a Whooping Crane, though.  Standing up to five feet tall, with a wingspan of over seven feet, they have brilliant white plumage and black wingtips (visible during flight).  Their heads have a red crown, and their bills are long, dark and pointed.  Along with the Sandhill Crane, whoopers are the only crane species found in North America.

A Whooping Crane's lifespan is estimated to be 22 to 24 years in the wild.  They are an endangered species.  By 1941, there were just 15-21 wild birds and two in captivity.  Since then, they have had a limited recovery.  In 2013, the International Crane Foundation estimated there were around 599 birds world-wide.  The flock that winters near Rockport in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has been estimated at near 250 birds.  It is the only wild, naturally-migrating flock in the world.  Each April, these birds fly north to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada.  They return to ANWR each November.  There is quite a controversy over the actual number of cranes in this flock.  It seems the individual who for a number of years had been responsible for the annual crane count retired, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has changed the way it estimates the population.  There is concern that their methods do not give an accurate count.

We saw a number of whoopers on Sunday.  Unfortunately, most of them were faaaarrrr away, like this crane couple who gave us a brief preview of their mating dance.

There was one bird we called Pink Knees that was more accommodating.  He (or she) was fishing close to the shore, accompanied by a number of friends.  (I've tried to identify the "friends" to the best of my ability.)

Whooper and Willet
Whooper and Great Blue Heron
Whooper and Reddish Egret
Although blue crabs are the favorite food of the Whooping Crane, this one only came up with a small fish for lunch.  

The Reddish Egret and Great Blue Heron were lurking close by, presumably hoping to steal something for their own meal.  

We searched for more whoopers, but unfortunately found none close enough to photograph.  We did locate a number of Roseate Spoonbills feeding close to shore.  The ones with the more brilliant feathers are getting their breeding plumage.  I was also happy that one of them gave me a chance to photograph it in flight.  (And, I was thrilled the shots turned out so well as I was manually focusing the camera instead of using its autofocus feature.)

Captain Tommy brought us close to a number of other birds, including the American Oystercatcher shown below, some Brown Pelicans and more Great Blue Herons.  

I learned something new, too.  The Reddish Egret, shown below, has a "white morph," or white phase.

Though they don't at first look alike, this one is also a Reddish Egret.  You can recognize it by its thick, dark bill, and its green legs.  Who knew?

It was a productive trip.  We got some nice photos and had a great time!


  1. Your Spoonbill in flight is spectacular but I also love the turquoise shot below. Be sure to "friend" Friends of Dyke Marsh. Someone has been braving the cold to get some really nice shots.