For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Crane Boat Ride

Original Air Date: March 3, 1997

This program is about the boat ride that takes people to see Whooping Cranes. Even non-birders would enjoy this trip. (4:03) Date confirmed

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, I went to Texas for a birding trip. Texas may have a lone star, but it has a lot more than one lone bird. Even though we limited our travels to a rather small area between Rockport and Zapata, our group found over 200 species. For some peculiar reason, the Brownsville Dump and the McAllen sewage ponds are not everyone’s cup of tea, despite the McAllen sewage pond’s friendly official sign specifically welcoming birders. Fortunately for normal people, most of the birdy places in Texas actually smell okay, and many hold beautiful sights that would please even an ardent non-birder.

If you find yourself near the Texas coast any time between November and March, make sure you take a boat ride out of Rockport to see the Whooping Cranes. A trip on the MV Skimmer is without doubt the best for seeing these spectacular, endangered birds. Captain Ted Appell has been running the Skimmer since 1986, and before that he was first mate, and then captain, of the famous, outlandishly pink MV Whooping Crane, from which I saw my own first Whooping Cranes in 1978. The Skimmer makes a morning run from 7:30 till noon every day except Tuesdays from November 1 through April 1, and makes an afternoon run if at least 10 people want to go out. It costs about $20, and your money is refunded if you do not see a Whooping Crane, making a view of this beautiful bird genuinely guaranteed.

Winter on the Texas coast isn’t necessarily warm. Whenever I stepped out on the deck this year, I was grateful for my long johns and wood mittens. The temperature was in the low 40s, with heavy winds and no warming rays of the sun. But Captain Ted serves coffee and hot chocolate, and Texas coastal marshes are rich in the kinds of big flashy birds that warm us from within.

Imagine a boat ride right into the marsh where every one of the world’s only completely natural Whooping Crane flocks winter! The cranes stay mainly in groups of three: a mated pair and their chick from the previous summer, who is recognizable by the soft brownish neck and head feathers. On our trip this time, the boat approached within a short stone’s throw of one crane family, and we heard the youngster making soft peeping sounds, begging for chunks of a big crab that its mother was tearing apart. She tenderly fed her young one several chunks in full view of the boat. We saw several other family units as well, though not at such close range.

And the boat offers even more than cranes. Every time I’ve ridden on it, I’ve seen at least a couple of dolphins. When I was there in 1991, we watched a coyote wandering through the marsh, presumably hunting, in full view for over five minutes. To add to the fun, it was constantly flushing up all manner of birds from sparrows to Clapper Rails, while the whole time a harrier flew above, trying to snatch up flushed prey.

A gorgeous Roseate Spoonbill flew right over our heads when we were boarding this time. Several White Ibises waded or flew by, their long, down-curved beaks giving these elegantly-plumed birds a ridiculous, Gonzo-like charm. Optimistic hawks and vultures occasionally flew over the rafts of hundreds of wintering ducks, checking out the opportunities. On this ride, we saw a total of 48 species, and would have had at least a dozen more if the weather had cooperated. That 4-hour tour on the MV Skimmer gave me a morning that will last a lifetime.