September 14, 2011
By Anna Livia
Last week a former Welder Wildlife fellow called Selma Glasscock here at Welder. He has recently been hired as the Biologist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell, about an hour from here. He needed some volunteers to help with a Whooping Crane counting experiment to take place on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. They needed some volunteers to take Whooping Crane decoys to exact coordinates which are mapped out and stake these decoys in various habitats where cranes are commonly found. Then the biologist (who has no knowledge of where the decoys have been placed) is flown over the refuge early the next morning in a plane to make a count of the cranes. Knowing the exact number of decoys, the experiment is to test the accuracy of the present counting method.
Dan eagerly volunteered for this opportunity to help with a Whooping Crane project, a bird he is particularly fascinated with. Since we got here to Welder, he has checked out all the books from Welder library which were about these endangered birds and has focused many evenings reading on them. This is because he is anticipating doing whooping crane tours for a guide service out of Rockport this whooping crane season and he has been attaining all the knowledge he can in order to make his tours educational and fun. For several days before we were scheduled to go to Aransas, we would be working and I would see this smile randomly spread across his face and he would say “Whooooping crrranes!” These were random expressions of satisfaction and excitement which reminded me of how a kid anticipates an upcoming field trip to the zoo, or better yet, an amusement park.
At 4:45 AM Dan and I got up to get ready to leave Welder and go to Aransas, day before yesterday. We were on the road driving out of Welder and saw our first Gray Fox on the refuge. One of the animals on my “Where The Wild Things Are” wildlife checklist, remember? So the day was off to a pretty good start.
We arrived to the Wildlife Refuge in Aransas at about 7:30. This is a National refuge run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a pretty elite conservation organization, as I understand. The volunteers are treated quite well. There is a Volunteer Building located behind the visitor and employee complex. They will put volunteers up for the night in one of their RV trailers or offer them campsites. There are laundry facilities, kitchen, showers and an ice machine. If needed, they will provide the volunteers with mosquito jackets and bug spray, sunscreen, water, and other items you might have forgotten to bring. They provide the waders (tall boots equipped for walking through marsh and swamp). On Saturday they will be holding a Barbeque for the volunteers who helped.
There were several teams of volunteers which were lead by refuge staff. Dan and I just happened to be chosen to work with the manager of the refuge, Dan Alonso. It was our job to go out on a boat through the Gulf Intracoastal waterway out to the bay. This of course was very exciting initially. Between meeting and getting to work an entire day with a refuge manager of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the subject matter being Whooping Cranes, the anticipation was exhilarating. We got to ride with Dan Alonso in his truck to the location and help load up the boat with the crane decoys. On the way to the boat, while we were driving in the truck the refuge manager was very personable and forth coming with interesting information about the cranes and his experiences with them since his becoming manager of the ANWR in 2008. He says 2008 was a really crazy year, the cranes were at risk due to the conditions caused by drought and salinity and they were worried about losing cranes. He said that they had to make the decision to feed the cranes which is a last resort and even then meets controversy from the experts and powers that be. He said he nearly lost his job over the whole ordeal. He predicts that due to this year’s severity of drought, he may be facing the very same predicament.
He made the whole thing fun, going out for the day to do this very physically taxing work in the blazing Texas sun. He gave me a cap, which was his daughter’s. I’m glad he did. The sun was pretty bad and I didn’t have one with me. He put Dan in charge of the GPS (the gadget I am going to call our compass). It digitally determines the exact coordinates (latitude and longitude) of your location, so you can find predetermined locations, but also so you can know exactly where you are located. I was basically riding along and fetching things as they were needed. I felt only occasionally useful. But that’s okay. I didn’t really want to be as useful as Dan was anyway. He had to wade through oyster reefs, cord grass, marsh, bay bottom and basically do what is really hard work. The Texas sun is already hard work, when you’re standing still, never mind navigating through habitat people generally avoid, unless they are there for some really good reason.
The ride out to our work area took about 35 minutes. Dan Alonso drove the boat very fast and the wind ripped by our faces. You didn’t turn you head to the side much or it would puff your cheeks up like a chipmunk’s. It took a little getting used, but then I started seeing the coastal waters, bayside of the coastal barrier island (Matagorda), and the shore birds that we so often talk about and romanticize about. These were the exact places that 2 years ago I read about after Dan brought me to visit the refuge for the pleasure of a day trip to get “off the island” where we lived (Port Aransas.) After I read about the Whooping Cranes, Aransas Wildlife Refuge and the uninhabited Matagorda Island I had wishes of maybe someday being able to visit Matagorda Island, which you can only see from the refuge, not visit, unless you have official business or research there. But, here I was, this day actually on a boat with the refuge manager, on a trip giving me full view of the island and its wildlife! It was like a dream come true.
We saw Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, White Ibis, Brown Pelicans and even some Osprey. The Brown Pelican is a very large bird. I have seen lots of Brown Pelicans before when I lived in Port Aransas. Seeing them again, I remarked that this is a very large bird indeed. I believe it is so large that it might be as large (or at least in the ball park) as a Whooping Crane. It is not rare or endangered like the Whooping Crane. If it was, it would be just as exciting to see one, as they are very interesting looking creatures. Its size and prehistoric appearance make it just as intriguing to watch as a Whooping Crane. But there are only something like 270 Whooping Cranes in the world, so they are much more sought after by birders. Great Blue Herons are very large birds as well, and interesting to watch. We saw a lot of them. One in particular, we caught sitting in a statuesque way on a post. I didn’t recognize it right off, as it had itself arranged in a peculiar stance and appeared to be in a “ticked off” mood. I was taken aback by its strange demeanor and I pointed it out to Dan asking what it was. He nodded as if he understood why I didn’t recognize it and said, “Blue Heron.” I asked if it was just me or did he look agitated, and Dan agreed the bird looked disgruntled to him too. If a bird can be that unrecognizable when it is in a bad mood, imagine how unrecognizable some of us people can be when we are in a bad mood!
There are only several places Whooping Cranes live in the world. There is only one self-sustaining population which survives in the wild and they spend the winter (November – March) on the Texas Gulf of Mexico at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and migrate every summer to their territory in Canada. Year after year these birds migrate twice annually.
They are a fascinating bird. They can live to be up to 40 years old, about 25 in the wild. They mate for life. The adult males establish their own territory. Males and females bond and have elaborate courtship rituals. The famous “dancing cranes” are named such for their courtship behavior. Both birds flap their wings, bow their heads, leap into the air and make loud vocalizations. Once they become a “couple,” they stay paired for the rest of their lives. They re-mate only after the death of their mate.
Once they are a pair, they do not lose interest in courtship rituals, these are still repeated every year. The rituals which precede mating, are an amazing amount of “foreplay” as they don’t have actual mating down here in Texas, they save that for after the migration and perform more dance rituals on their trip up north. It’s not until they reach Canada that they get started with baby making. They waste no time once they reach Canada. Because they are on a tight schedule, to mate, raise the chick to be large enough and strong enough to make the journey back down to Texas before the deathly Canada winter sets in. The behavior of these birds has been studied extensively over the years. They have very interesting patterns in addition to their mating: their migration, their territorial behavior, the way they raise and teach their young and their hierarchy. Deference, in terms of territory is always given to adult birds with chicks, then adult male with a mate, with sub-adults (single, non-mated adults)being at the bottom of the hierarchy.
When they day was over, Dan and I were both exhausted, totally whooped actually. Of the two trailers left available to volunteers, the air conditioners in both had quit. We attempted to set up for the night in a screened in structure at the youth campgrounds, overlooking the bay, but the heat, the still air and the mosquitoes (that got through the cracks in the door)forced us out. We didn’t know where we were going, we just knew we had to go, it didn’t matter, anywhere else would have done. The end of the pier would have been more suitable with at least some breeze to fight the mosquitoes. On the way back to the refuge complex, we saw a Cottonmouth right in the middle of the road. We stopped and took pictures as close as we could get without being stupid.
We ended up going back to the Volunteer Building, which is not exactly set up for overnight guests but it had A/C and a floor. We threw our camping mattresses down, with sleeping bags and went straight to sleep!
Today, I stayed behind while Daniel went out for the day again with Dan Alonso to recover all the decoys and move them to new locations. From what Daniel told me locations were harder to get to today, the mosquitoes were twice as bad and he was glad I hadn’t gone with them. He said that there was only one thing I missed which he wished I could have seen. It was a couple of White-tailed Deer swimming across the channel from the wetlands to the island! Apparently there are animals (including Javelina) which Dan, the manager of the refuge has seen doing this from time to time. Deer, swimming at all, is something I haven’t seen before. But taking the Intracoastal waterway, wow! That must have been cool. But, just the same, I’m glad I stayed behind.
Despite the drought and its effect on the habitat and wildlife, and despite the temperature being above normal for this time of year, we enjoyed our two days at the ANWR. What I learned out of this experience was that for any given animal that conservationists and scientists work hard to protect from extinction, there is also a great deal of work done by volunteers who do the work for their love of nature. It is those that do this work for no pay, those who do the work regardless of how dirty, or sweaty or “pooped” they are going to be at the end of the day, that I gained a great deal of respect for over last couple of days. These volunteers are a very important and a vital part of the conservation efforts that work religiously to keep the endangered Whooping Crane from extinction. Moral of the story: nature can be a lot of fun, but for those who participate in its preservation it can be a lot of hard work! Nature can for all its beauty and adventure, can test your endurance and be a lot of work!
We hope to go back on Saturday to the barbeque and have some time getting to know the others that volunteered for this effort in the larger journey to save this very noble and famous bird, the faithful Whooping Crane. We are now back at our dorm at Welder, which is our “home sweet home” at this point in time, physically exhausted, but inspired in spirit! Happy to be home! But glad we went.’
Here are some more pictures: