For the Birds Radio Program: Whooping Cranes at 28 Degrees F!
Every winter, the world’s only flock of absolutely wild Whooping Cranes winters on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Corpus Christi, Texas. I happened to be there on Thursday morning—I was on a tight schedule and was only going to be there for the morning, so had just one opportunity to see the Whooping Cranes from the MV Skimmer, the best boat for getting out into the estuary where the birds spend most of their time in small family groups, searching for blue crabs. But a cold front had rushed through the day before. At sunrise, when we were boarding, the temperature was 28 with the wind raging at about 25 miles per hour. Fortunately, barrier islands protect the estuary, so we didn’t have to deal with high waves. Even more fortunately, a dozen people were willing to brave the cold just to see Whooping Cranes, and so Tommy Moore, a most cheerful and willing captain, took us out.
It was too darned cold up on the upper deck while we sped out from the Fulton marina through the open channel until we reached the refuge. Everyone stayed inside the heated lower deck until Tommy cut the engines for our first look at Whooping Cranes—several of us shot up to the upper deck. The wind was fierce—I had to take off my glasses several times to wipe the tears from the lenses. My eyes were spurting despite being dressed as warm as I am when it’s 40 below in northern Minnesota. Russ and I were both wearing our heavy-duty Mad Bomber hats buttoned under the chin. Our thickest winter jackets were zipped up to our faces, and my thick scarf covered my mouth and cheeks as well as my neck. I also had on long johns and my heaviest winter gloves. On the three-hour boat ride, I went through three fully charged camera batteries—normally each one lasts a whole day.
Hot coffee never tasted so good—even non-coffee drinkers were sipping it to heat themselves. And not one person stayed on the upper deck when we moved between one vantage point and another. The birds didn’t have it quite so lucky. Great Blue Herons were hunkered down, sitting as low as they possibly could but not getting much protection from the brown marsh grasses. Their internal calendars were telling their bodies that it was spring, so they were in full breeding plumage. The wind whipped their aigrette plumes, which must have added to their discomfort. Ibises, Roseate Spoonbills, and herons of all species were mostly huddled down within the vegetation rather than trying to find food. I kept telling myself that open water doesn’t chill below 32 degrees, but to get food they had to submerge their faces and then pull them up into the freezing air, where the wind would have added to the chill. Most of the birds seemed to prefer an empty stomach to dealing with this. Only one Laughing Gull checked out our boat, and I didn’t hear a single bird called during the entire boat ride.
But Whooping Cranes, which migrate through the upper Midwest in April all the way up to northernmost Alberta, are made of sterner stuff. Despite the wind whipping their feathers any time they weren’t facing directly into it, they seemed to go about their business in search of blue crabs as they always do. We came upon several families that each allowed us fairly close looks, and so I got photos of them feeding on crabs and even on a little fish, and preening, and in flight. We returned to the marina at 11 chilled to the bone, and it took well over an hour to feel warm again, but this visit to the last absolutely wild flock of Whooping Cranes was worth every shiver.