Milestone 700, ch 8, Monks and Whoopers

Monks and Whoopers

If you don‘t have grandchildren now, chances are you will, and one factor that will usually motivate travel is a trip to visit grandchildren. Visiting grandchildren has several advantages including enjoying and spoiling of the little tikes. Part of the spoiling part may be revenge towards their parents. After all, your own kids likely helped make peace into chaos more than once. Perhaps it is time to get even. Being the grandparent also provides the opportunity to opt out of certain grandparenting activities. If the tike become to difficult, hand them back to the parents for parenting. Although grandparents are not supposed to rate short-legged activities that become intolerable, it happens. Not everything is cute. When the elfin generations become less than charming and too loud, when they ask too many questions or generally require first aid, is when another advantage of visiting grandchildren comes into play. As grandparents, you may try announcing you are going to have to take a nap and let your kids do the chasing and the worrying. If you have convinced your own kids how important it is to chase rare birds, you can skip the nap and go birding. Tell them there is a rare warbler, a potential lifer, just a couple hours away.

A generation ago, my parents wanted the grandchildren brought to them. They just were not into traveling across the continent having spent many summers on spinning treks to the Midwest when they brought their kids, yours truly and sister otherwise known as the grandchildren, to see their parents, the grandparents. Mom and Dad had been there and done that, as some might say. So, I fulfilled their grand-parenting cravings by becoming the bringer of their grandkid from Virginia to Oregon. That had advantages for me also, but I am getting ahead of the story.

Had my mostly staying at home parents been birders, they might not have been mere rare visitors to the Atlantic side of the North America. Their “naps,” between the outbursts of cute and cuddly, not to mention loud and messy, could have been filled with eastern warblers and Laughing Gulls. However, they were not birders and they were a little intimidated by Arlington, Virginia, its crowds, traffic and ever-present political wind blowing across the Potomac. Is a visit worth being ground into the traffic and crowds when a reunion could take place is a relatively pastoral setting?

Eventually my daughter grew beyond the munchkin stage, but Mom and Dad, insisted I continue making the journey to Oregon, with or without their grandkid. Eventually, I realized this was an opportunity to study the birds near the old homestead. At that time, chronicling the birds of my home county in a North American Fauna in 1975 was behind me. I could then begin working on some of the taxonomic dilemmas plaguing southwestern Oregon by collecting specimens that would help decide issues of geographic variation and ranges of subspecies. My parents did not seem to mind me slipping out from time to time, which gave them opportunity to take a real nap or… Propelled by my Dad’s current four-wheel brat, a brand of a small pick-up, and armed with mom’s cookies, a sandwich and a two-barrel euphonizer supplied by the home office, I was in hot pursuit of taxonomic truths. Dad always enjoyed hearing how many times I shot, missed, and laughed about the times I nearly stuck the vehicle off some mountain road. It was good-natured teasing from a kind and supporting father. Before anyone gets upset about the death of a few birds, be reminded that speeding cars, domestic cats, communication towers and wind turbines are only a few things that are far more lethal contributing factors to avian mortality than the smattering of birds that ended up as valuable specimens in the bird collection of the Division of Birds at the Natural History Museum.

How in the world did the subject of grandchildren get to museum specimens? Easy, one granddaughter to my parents, my trusty daughter, was my field assistant in Oregon since my then young daughter, with the blessing of her grandparents, accompanied me on some bird collecting jaunts. One such trip scheduled during parental visitation was about a mile outside Crater Lake National Park where, on the east slope of the Cascade Mountains, a russet-backed and an olive-backed thrush managed to fly into a mist net. Because it was during the breeding season, these two birds should not be together. One, the russet bird belonged on the west slope of the mountains. Were the two interbreeding? Could these two birds, collectively known as Swainson’s Thrush, actually represent two different species? That evening, pondering the situation, we stopped before setting up camp for a cold drink of cola in the back of my dad’s camper. The opened can shot cold sticky liquid to the ceiling before it rained down on our surprised faces. Bumpy back roads did not get the last laugh. My daughter thought it was so funny she barely got her breath. She happily told the story when we returned to the grandparents. They thought it was funny too. So did I, but not so much during hours of getting rid of the cola that after a few days became a tacky glue that although loved by insects, appeared to be eating the painted interior of the camper.

The spewing cola can story has been recounted several times by my daughter, now holding a PhD in education. The two thrush specimens have since been mentioned in the ornithological literature. Numerous revisits to the site, this time without cola, have failed to produce any thrush twosome. In fact, the Swainson’s Thrush is fewer and far between compared to my daughter’s munchkin days.

Decades after recruiting my parent’s granddaughter for field work, and three years ago when the older granddaughter in Austin was the inspiration for Linda and I to journey for 45 days from Sabine country of Texas and the Southwest a few years ago seem long ago yet fresh in memory.

Our last visit to Texas was in 2005, and I was hopeful of trying to pick up several of the species we missed during our sweep two years ago. As predicted, the reward of witnessing the growth and development of grandchildren, not to mention the same of your own kids, also presented the chance to escape politely for some birding. The situation offered the extra bonus that it put me within a day’s drive of some of the best birding in the United States. Masked and Muscovy Ducks, Whooping Crane, Hook-billed Kite, three species in the parrot family and White-collared Seedeater headed the hit wish list of species that only Texas would likely harbor for a birder thinking of having a healthy list of ABA birds. Since people tend to change residences every so many years, my hope is to find the Texas specialties, then encourage my daughter to move to Alaska.

*****

6-7 March 2007

We leave home from the tiny yet christened international airport too early in the morning. 5:50 is excessively early unless birds are likely. Today’s agenda is uneventful, with the typical sock walk through security, with hopeful misgivings that all our bottles from lotions to DEET are under the size de jour to pass the eagle eyes of armed guards. Having walked into the inner sanctum of our local airport security on numerous occasions, we are ready for the worst. Even before 9-11, the local security folks just stopped short of cavity searching. Yesterday one of the guards told us carry-on bottles could be 3.5 ounces, but today they tell us the size must be not more 3.0 ounces. This is no great surprise owing to experience with our local airport staffs. Luckily, we do not have to pour out .5 ounces of DEET or other liquids. At least the process of bending over was simply to retrieve our nonlethal boots. The bump and grind getting through security, the plane with seats suitable for short kneeless individuals, and the pleasure to breath stale cabin air, these were the things that make flying so much fun. Changing planes in Phoenix is almost a welcome retreat until realizing the second act, the last leg (sans knees) of the airborne journey, is yet to come. At least we did not have to pass through security again; we could keep our socks clean and not worry about teetering over while attempting to balance suspected contraband and lace up our footwear. The possibility of tumbling into others going through a similar balancing act is around the corner. Boots and shoes flying through the air, mingled with masses of keys, loose change hurling into orbit and surprised travelers flailing the air before crumpling into a heap of embarrassed legs and arms could happen. I recall once asking a Houston security official for a chair to use while modeling our socked feet. Linda and I were too tired and too stiff from our sardine flight from Panama. That did not matter. What I got was a comment that equates to eating feces, or worse, you had better keep quite or we will detain you. In fact, maybe asking for a chair explains why we ended up going through yet another screening. We were the only ones in a huge room away from other passengers. The armed people said it was because we were coming from Panama. Huh. We were not the only ones on the flight that originated in Panama.

The connecting flight from Oregon flies eastward from Phoenix, Arizona. Peering hard at the fleeting landscape, I spot what I believe to be the Gilbert Water Ranch. A few days earlier, the thought crossed my birding mind of a day lay over to rent a car from Phoenix, drive out to see the wintering Streak-backed Oriole, then catch a flight to Austin the following day. Of course, that would have meant another sock walk through security, and it would cut into our stay in Texas. Linda might have agreed to me chasing the oriole while she continued on to Austin. However, abandoning the prospect of a new lifer to be at the side of my cherished partner is a no-brainer.

Somehow, we arrive in Austin, where I am able to reclaim my legs, pick up a rental car (three weeks charge challenged the dollar amount of the airline ticket) and drive to the home of our granddaughter and her parents in the southern suburbs. It is wonderful to see the granddaughter Sabine, a name for Texas landmarks. Great-tailed Grackles, the first trip bird, are clacking and whistling in the live oaks. White-winged Doves coo nearby.

The next morning, I head for a nearby city park where Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays mark the air with their calls. It felt good to hear eastern birds again. It is doubtful I would see any target birds although a couple of species, Field Sparrow and Pine Warbler, surprisingly, would be new to Linda.

8 March 2007

Jennifer operates a Montessori day-care in her home, which, starting around 6:30 a.m. to almost twelve hours later, one or several short munchkins would be toddling, screaming, running, playing or crying, sometimes simultaneously, almost anywhere in the house or in the back yard. Even the Blue Jays kept their distance. As much as I love my daughter and granddaughter, it is prudent that I think of an alternative venue for myself and everyone‘s well-being. The decision is to take the role de jour: birder.

Chuck Sexton, biologist at Balcones-Canyonland National Wildlife Refuge east of Austin had emailed some sites to check for Monk Parakeets. Chuck had supplied an enjoyable and most hospitable journey in the high country while looking for Black-capped Vireos and Golden-cheeked Warblers in April 2005. We saw several individuals of these endangered species, exchanged stories about Roger Clapp and Joe T. Marshall. Roger’s Smithsonian office was adjacent to mine during my years practicing at my day job there. We recalled Roger’s decade’s old-field work on the vireos. Joe was also at Smithsonian, once, for about a year was even my administrative supervisor, and was mostly a friend and inspiration. He hated administering and loved research. We shared our interest in birds and music. Our bent sense of humor was on the same wavelength, providing us more laughter than some of our colleagues perhaps understood. Chuck had recalled Joe’s indefatigable energy, serious research and respect for hilarity.

The succinct directions for finding downtown Austin Monk Parakeets that Chuck provided in 2005 were probably wonderful, but in minutes, I became lost. This time, heading north on Lamar Boulevard, a main artery of the Texas capitol, I was once again following Chuck’s directions. The memories of Roger and Joe flash through my mind as I dodge vehicles driven by Texans in a hurry and who are definitely familiar with the streets. At Town Lake, I take a left into a parking lot. On one side is the ever so originally named lake, and on the other, ball fields and the city park offices. Chuck had mentioned that the lights high over the ballparks often harbor nests. I decide to poke my head into the first park office of the long brick building and try my luck. A staff member tells me that a couple of people were good sources on the status of the birds, but both had left for the day. Who could blame them on such a warm spring day? Victor Ovalle, my last person said to know about Monk Parakeets, is just getting out of a meeting. “Sure.” He takes me into another office, much to the surprise and amusement of the occupant, and points north across Town Lake. Setting on a small hill was a cell tower. “That’s the place.”

Thanks to him, and when I consult my notes, thanks to Chuck Sexton, I had a strong lead for my next life bird. The distance across the lake was too far to identify a couple of birds I see fly up into what appears from my third of a mile vantage, a gray fuzzy mass on top of the cell tower. Despite the heat, I walk hurriedly across a footbridge across Town Lake, traverse the busy street paralleling the north side of the lake and hike up a gentle hill next to the YMCA building. The cell tower stands near the top. One bird flew quickly down from the top and into a nearby tree. The green back and blue on the wings was my first good look at a Monk Parakeet, number 613 for my ABA list. What were once gray fuzzy blobs near the top are actually huge stick nests. Holes in the nests are either blackened dark or have a fat, whitish-cheeked parakeet filling the opening. Occasionally, a bird flies from a nest or one arrives, but mostly the parakeets stare down at me. From my prospective, on the ground and looking straight up, the birds peering down look almost cherub-like. Because of their whitish throats, fat faces and curved parrot bill, the Monk Parakeets gawking from their nest openings appear helplessly comical. Like defiant clowns, they are defending their nest sites, but with trepidation. To paraphrase Mark Anthony, I am here not as a predator but as an admirer.

Driving down stream to the dam forming Town Lake, I find another huge zone full of ball fields and ball players, some of which are yelling, “batter up” or “I’ve got it.” This is Krieg Field, another potential place to find Monk Parakeets. However, the silvery poles and the battery of lights aimed at the green grass and marked diamonds are pristine. Checking the bases of a few of the poles, I find a few scraps of sticks, fragments of leaves and a soiled feather or two. Apparently, the nests of a colony of parakeets had been removed.

*****

Austin’s first colony of Monk Parakeets was reported in 1995. Since then, birds have been reported primarily inhabiting the light poles in the parks around Town Lake. Naturally, from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, where they are regarded anecdotally as pests to agriculture, Monk Parakeets have been introduced worldwide. The species first showed up on the continent in New York in the late 1960s. John Bull, one of many eminent ornithologists associated with the American Museum of Natural History and early chronicler of Monk Parakeets on American soil, correctly concluded that the species is essentially sedentary. Sometimes on visits to the New York museum, I would have lunch with John, often accompanied by another John, John Farrand, former roommate and occasional mentor. These were moments full of wit and insight that only the two Johns could offer. It was a learning experience of stories not to repeat and insights to guide. Monk Parakeets were nowhere in the recesses of my brain then. Too bad, I can almost imagine John Bull’s commentary of Gardner Bump’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaflet decrying that Monk Parakeets would gradually extend their range to Florida and the West Coast. In 30 years, Monk Parakeets, were, indeed, south to Florida and to the Pacific. These aliens even have set up residency in Oregon. The spread, if that is the correct term, bumped along, so to speak, faster than wildfire or locus. By all accounts, and I am not going to claim any expertship here, Monk Parakeets now occupy so many places in North America, not because they expanded their range from New York, but that so many cage birds escaped or were subsequently released from in so many different localities. Mark Spreyer, senior author of the “Life History of the Monk Parakeet,” a part of the Birds of North America series, believes so.

As with so many other appearances of Monk Parakeets, the establishment of most of the species in Austin was apparently from the release by a known but here unnamed individual of 19 birds. Some sources state that the release was in 1980, others as late as 1991. Finding out what later happened to the population of Monk Parakeets in Austin seems much more difficult than researching the type locality of the northeastern subspecies of Yellow Warbler or sorting out 17th Century literature to determine what the correct scientific name of what we now call Neotropic Cormorant. Those were a couple of my day-job projects, and one would think unearthing something on an introduced species would be relatively easy. Maybe, but after scanning the net for numerous moons, perhaps in all the wrong places, I have to draw the line and move on. Part of the problem, other than old-fart impatience, is that apparently some field observers ignore Monk Parakeet because it is not a native species. I understand, and hold guilty verdicts concerning Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows and European Starlings. For years, introduced Rock Pigeons were not even counted on Christmas Bird Counts. Are Monk Parakeets worth counting? The ABA thinks so, and it makes good since, ecologically and scientifically to know what is going on. Having only barely experienced these birds, I did find them fascinating. Even so, it is hard to feel positive toward something that, once again, might victimize our environment. Are they worth counting? At least during the wee years of the 21st Century, the country is not nearly as overrun by Monk Parakeets as it is by earlier introduced species of bird, countless introduced plants and other animals, not to mention dogs, cats and their masters. There are 394, and counting, introduced species in Texas alone. Mute Swans, Mandarin Ducks, pheasants and their cousins, numerous parrots and many others ply for space in North America. Some species are far more endangering to agriculture and other human activities than Monk Parakeets probably ever will be. Although I could not say this about a Norwegian Rat, I am glad to have seen Monk Parakeets.

Monk Parakeets are the only parrot to build a stick nest. Some of these stick apartment nests may reach the size of a small automobile. In Austin, parakeets usually build on light poles and cell towers. Confessing to poor observing, I’m not sure how many nests were in the mass of sticks and leaves on the YMCA cell tower. I should have counted. Reaching back in my pate, there may have been up to 12 nest holes.

What is the plight of Monk Parakeets in Austin and elsewhere? Stuart Strong, assistant director to Austin’s Parks and Recreation told me on the phone that the light maintenance crews occasionally will remove nests from the light poles towering over several Austin ballparks when the bulky parakeet nests begin blocking the lights or there is concern that an electrical short is not long coming. Mr. Strong said the removals do not take into consideration whether the nests contain young or eggs. More than likely the longevity of the nest depends on safety and potential interruption to valuable cell time. After all, everyone must remain in contact either by voice or text messaging regardless of how annoying it is to hear someone else’s private conversation while dining out or sitting on a park bench, causing a traffic accident or possibly disrupting the internal communications of once busy honey bees. As for Monk management elsewhere, it seems to depend on the will and ability of municipalities and other governments. Some are ready to kill or try to kill them all. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, my old alma mater, tried to eradicate populations, with minor success and failure. On the other hand, legislation exists protecting some Monk Parakeets. Location, location, location.

*****

8-9 March 2007

Using my son-in-law’s computer, I learn that three Whooping Cranes on 8 March climbed to 1,000 feet, and headed north. When the opportunity arose, I stare from the back yard on the chance that cranes were flying over Austin. Nothing, of course.

10 March 2007

Linda, daughter and granddaughter join me at the Town Lake cell tower. The Monk Parakeets are alive and well, and offer better views than a few days ago. A cell call to Oregon went through without difficulty. Apparently, the bulky nests had not disrupted the airways.

*****

The Town Lake cell tower offered some easy chances to see Monk Parakeets and Linda took full advantage to catch her first Monk Parakeet. Her daughter stood back to watch Sabine. At her young and fretful age, Sabine did not seem to notice the busy parakeets flying from perch to nest site. Little did anyone realize that in three years, Sabine had morphed into a gung-hoe birder, but I am getting ahead of myself.

*****

12-13 March 2007

A few days ago, I reserved space on the Wharf Cat, a cruise boat that would be departing Port Aransas tomorrow to see Whooping Cranes. Linda decided to join me as far as the port, but opted not to go on the cruise. We travel highways east of the interstate terminating in Corpus Christi. Interstates usually are not great places to see birds and a steady southerly wind must have kept most birds hunkered down. Black Vultures and Loggerhead Shrikes are the highlights on our way to Port Aransas on the north end of Mustang Island, a barrier island north of more well known Padre Island. Crowded with early spring tourist, the motel prices compared to interior localities are bloated. We check in for the $100 per night abode. Afterwards, I head for the jetty. Cars and people are everywhere. The jetty is awash with clambering kids, leashless dogs, their best friends and plenty of folks holding onto fishing poles as tightly as they earlier did while the wishbone snapped under the thanksgiving table. A pool of water at the beach is surrounded by more people, and remarkably, about 50 Laughing Gulls and Caspian, Royal, and my favorite, Sandwich Terns. Resting back at the motel, my sinuses are telling me either I am under a bug attack or the constant wind stirring up spring pollens is more than I need.

The next morning and feeling better, I arrive at the dock to board the Wharf Cat, a 75-foot catamaran, for a cruise north to view Whooping Cranes wintering in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The tour guide promise that the boat’s 4-foot draft is sufficiently shallow to allow close views of the tallest of North American birds. A couple of sprinkles and blackened clouds suggest stormy weather. I do not care so long as we travel to the refuge and no one is struck by lightning. Except for the Intracoastal Waterway, the water in Aransas Bay is shallow. Indians, it is said, waded from the mainland to Mustang Island. It would have been a long trip; Rockport, a famous migrant trap, looks tiny in the gray distance. Those signed up for the cruise mill from their cars, the dock and back for something forgotten, take photos and wait. It is a mixed group, a father and young teenage son, a couple with a toddler, that were possibly college students and mostly retired ilk, some older, some younger than me.

During the wait, I recall the first time I ever saw Whooping Cranes. I don’t remember how many I saw, but I’ll never forget one tall bird walking up to the fence at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. The bird seemed curious or maybe it wanted to get closer to peck my eyes out. The time, winter, with an icy temperature that brought pain to my bones. The poor crane was obviously cold, its shivering looked to be agonizing, as it stood on its bare long legs, shaking torso and stretched neck. A sore throat would have been a long ordeal. Its breath, colliding with the chilly air, made small momentary clouds white that mingled with mine. Ray Erickson ignored the cold, took note of the shivering bird and kept spilling out more knowledge about Whooping Cranes than I could hope to learn.

Dr. Erickson was a charter member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered Species Committee, having steered thinking towards protecting species whose populations were plummeting towards extinction. I recalled how Patuxent’s staff began attempting to breed Whooping Cranes, an opportunity made possible by Roxie Laybourne’s ability to sex these giant birds. Roxie worked at the museum, beginning nearly a half-century career in 1944, the year of my birth. At the time of the tour with Ray Erickson, Roxie was not sure of me, a Danny McSkunk, ornithologist want-to-be, until I took interest in her project on the subspecies of Redwinged Blackbirds breeding in Florida. She poured over several hundred specimens of females (other than size, the black males appear similar regardless of their geographic origin). There were rows upon rows of them, arranged primarily based on where they were collected. I spent weeks measuring wing chords, and length of tail, tarsus, and determining the height, width and length of the bill. Besides size, plumage color was examined. The dark vertical stripes of these birds varied considerably in width and more in saturation, with browns varying slightly in width and ranging in color from relatively pale brown to nearly black. Any discussions Roxie and I had about the redwings or anything else was highlighted by her straight forwardness accented by a southern twang like none other. Her delivery was usually loud, punctuating the quiet of the rows of museum cases, and you knew what she had to say most of the time was something worth remembering.

Although we were friends, even confiding our personal woes and triumphs during evenings when most all the staff had retired for the night. It was possible to accomplish more then, opposed to when daytime phones and people demanded time. Roxie preferred those late times too. She always told it how it is, straight and to the point, and because of that, I never felt comfortable about asking her how she sexed Whooping Cranes. The details and analogies would probably embarrass me. She probably would have laughed, took a drink of her revered and traditional evening can of Mountain Dew, and said I should be able to figure that out myself. Roxie knew the Whooping Cranes well, and many, especially those more involved in the breeding programs, she knew by name. When I announced that Ray Erickson had given me a tour of the cranes, Roxie beamed. Waiting for the Wharf Cat, I beamed too, with slightly welled eyes, the thought of cranes passed and Roxie talking about Josephine, the Whooping Crane, as she checked the barbules of a feather fragment gleaned from a hapless crashed plane windshield. The feather lady was gone, but, thanks in part to her, there are more Whooping Cranes than ever before. In fact, when Roxie began working at Smithsonian, only 18 Whooping Cranes wintered in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Another three wintered in Louisiana where none winter now. By 1957, when I contracted the birding bug, there were 24 birds wintering in Aransas. As part of my year-long birding trip beginning in 1962, I planned to be in Texas in the spring of 1963 and see Whooping Cranes. A measly 32 were around then. By 1976, 57 birds were counted at Aransas and four individuals from the captive breeding program were introduced to the Rocky Mountain region. Roxie “retired” in 1988 when 134 wild cranes were counted at Aransas; 42 birds were in captivity. While on her second career, Roxie was solving cases concerning bird-caused plane crashes for the FAA and others and murder cases for the FBI, and Whooping Cranes were practicing multiplication or some process ending in “cation.”

While Roxie continued working on feathers at Smithsonian as a consultant, Whooping Crane numbers continued to increase. When I retired in fall of 1996, 160 wild Whoopers would descend to their winter Texas marsh. By then more birds were introduced to the Rocky Mountain region as well as to Florida and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership involving several eastern states. In 2005, travel had taken me to Aransas where the last of 215 birds departed the April day before my arrival. If only the width of half a continent had not been so foreboding, perhaps there would have been time to visit with my old friend and mentor. By August 2005, Roxie having reached her 92nd year, she said good bye to the world.

Waiting to head for crane country did make me think of Ray Erickson and Roxie Laybourne. Naturally, I didn’t recall all the census data. I thought the number that would have been in Aransas in 1963 was 36, not 32, but when I began planning that trip in 1961, there were 36. Funny how a number can stick in some darker corner of the brain for 56 years. Yet, other facts and happenings became lost or confused such as mistakenly recalling a study of longspurs in the 1970s were Chestnut-collared instead of McCown’s. The mind is a strange organism, and I hoped that I could recall today’s trip, especially to relate it to Linda who was nursing a bug at the motel.

TX 07 042
Transportation

 

The Wharf Cat rumbles from the pier, loaded with potential crane observers. A few yards from the mooring, the big boat changes directions and heads back to the dock. Oh no, the cruise has been terminated. Two lucky late comers climbed on board and the boat heads northward toward the Intracoastal Waterway and the wintering home of the majority of wild Whooping Cranes. My half-empty glass became full. Our guide tells everyone that 237 cranes are wintering in the marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, nearly 55,000 acres strong, is best known for providing the last natural winter range of today’s target bird. Motoring north of the flat water, we travel along the waterway, with the expansive Aransas Bay on one-side and dunes, beaches and Gulf of Mexico waters on the other. Soon, we enter the marshes of the refuge. Three Whooping Cranes allow the boat to nudge up to the edge of the marsh where the birds are foraging. Everyone gets great views of the brownish bird from last summer’s hatching and the two attending parents. Finally seeing my first wild Whooping Cranes is amazing and disappointing. The birds are amazing just from their size and knowing that these are wild birds. Knowing that they soon will be migrating and going to remote northern Canada is amazing. Their colors, striking and beautiful, with the soft brown hues of the young bird, the wide outstretched wings of the adults flashing black and white, I know, will leave an indelible memory. It is thrilling, but perhaps because I had dreamt of this moment for so long, I had imagined it more than it could be. On the other hand, perhaps it is that someone else took me to see these magnificent birds. Maybe if I had been brave enough to rent a boat, and find the birds on my own, I would have felt differently. The situation reminds me of seeing so many life birds in Panama. It would have been impossible, in the amount of available time, to see and identify so many new species without help. Although it was exciting seeing fancy hummingbirds such as Western Long-tailed Hermit and Green-crowned Brilliant located and first identified by a guide it was a greater thrill to me finding and identifying a Southern Bentbill before the attending birding escort. I think seeing my first Pine Grosbeak last year in Montana was equally if not more thrilling although I would not want to deny the possibility of either time or either species. Today, the wonderful cranes allow their audience to take in their show. Maybe it is too easy. One thing for sure, Linda, who had not been with me at Patuxent, would have been delighted to see Whooping Cranes. It had been a long time since first dreaming of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild. Seeing them closed a circle of imaginations and dreams and memories of old friends.

Ten or more trios of Whooping Cranes are spotted here and there across the marshes. Our guide tells the eager group that not only are cranes endangered, but that their winter bastion is endangered. One major problem is water. Fresh water flowing into the refuge is critical to the ecology of crane habitat. Upstream, particularly the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers are threatened. Once again, there are more people demanding more water. Steps are being taken to abate who gets what, but just how much can a crane compromise?

TX 07 060
Whooping Crane family, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Blocks in foreground help slow soil erosion caused by passing boats.

 

The plight of the Whooping Cranes, the plight of Earth comes down to how humans impact every inch of ground, every gallon of water and all the air we breath. Are the ecological problems of today as severe as those say 100 years ago, 200 years ago or more? The only reasonable answer to the question is yes. What is the most obvious answer, an answer most if not all conservation organizations and most governments avoid providing, is human population. Human procreation is natural, frequently religious by following the go forth and multiply routine and a product of peer pressure. Get married. Then the question comes: when are you going to have kids, when are you going to give me grandchildren? Between Linda and me, we have three children and four grandchildren. What if we had between us six children and they each produced three children? We would be hip deep in grandchildren, which is delightful, but is it really. Would 18 grandchildren be the best thing for the environment? Well, maybe not or maybe so. The human population, the larger it gets, the much larger it becomes. Our population is growing logarithmically and at the expense of our environment. We are all someone’s grandchild. Just how many of us can we stand? There are already too many of us.

Humans endanger themselves and today I can see how they endanger Whooping Cranes. The most readily visible menace to Whooping Crane habitat is just off the deck, at the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway and the grassy marshland barely above high tide. Each year about two acres of Whooping Crane habitat disappears, not by rising sea-level but by the wakes created by wind and passing ships. Commercial shipping transported 27 million tons of goods in 1995. No doubt, that figure has changed since then. Even the tours taking birders to see wintering Whooping Cranes are contributing to the problem. To minimize some of the erosion, the shores of many of the grassy islands are covered with what the business calls articulated concrete mats. These structures appear much like concrete blocks placed on their sides; the spaces allow plants to grow. The artificially protected shores, miles from town, appear out of place. The shores remind me of a manicured city park. A nearby family trio of cranes, seemingly too close to be wild, forage without apparent concern of the bubbly rumble of the boat inching to the concrete block shore. Maybe this is disappointment, seeing these birds so close, from a noisy boat hosting a throng of people vying for the best view as if a float was rolling along in a parade. Then, suddenly, for no obvious reason, one of the birds looks up, perhaps anxiously, flaps its wings and flies a few yards away. These birds could leave anytime they desired. How wild is that?

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