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Woods, Waters and Wildlife

By John Jefferson Outdoor writer and photographer

A Federal Case
They travel over 2,500 air miles to Texas, so we can see them. The least we can do is drive to Rockport to take a good look.
I’m talking about the largest “snowbird” that comes to Texas for the winter. Whooping cranes are one of the largest birds in North America, slightly smaller than the California condor — but much prettier. And they’re arriving daily.
They’re also the poster-bird for conservation. Down to only 21 birds in 1941, they were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1967. They’ve since enjoyed life and a major recovery, now numbering 442 in a 2015 survey.
Whooping cranes stand almost five feet tall and have a seven and a half-foot wingspan, which help them commute from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Texas each fall, and back to Canada in the spring. Whooping Cranes resemble white pelicans and snow geese—white with black wing tips—but with a red head. In flight, their neck and legs extend out noticeably.
The birds are jealously protected by federal and state game wardens and an ever-increasing cadre of citizens who won’t hesitate to call the cops or Operation Game Thief (1-800-792-GAME) if they detect a violation. I’ve seen it happen.
And whooping crane violations cost more than a slap on the wrist. In the wildlife world, it’s high crime. (More on this at end of column.)
An entire cottage industry has sprung up along the Texas coast with visitors coming from all over North America and beyond to see the birds.
Several whooping crane tours operating out of Rockport will take you alongside the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Getting out onto land is prohibited, but the boats will get you reasonably close to the great birds, which are often seen feeding in shallow water of the Intercoastal Waterway.
Last week, I talked to Capt. Tommy Moore, a Rockport guide with whom I’ve made several satisfying birding trips. (Last Friday, they saw 34 cranes.) Of the boats I’ve been on, the “Skimmer” that Tommy operates is my favorite, although I haven’t been on all of them. The Skimmer is very comfortable and covered (in case of rain), and fast enough to get across open water quickly, allowing more time for birding. Tommy is also an excellent resource for identifying birds. There are roughly 400 different species of birds that winter around the refuge.
(Trips on the Skimmer cost $55 a person for three hours (or longer). For information or reservations, call 877-892-4737.)
Waterfowl hunters, be careful! Identify your target before you shoot! Whoopers might taste like chicken, but they’ll leave a bitter taste. Fines are fierce, and rightly so. The most recent whooper-shooter was a fool near Beaumont who shot two with a rifle. He was convicted, fined $26,000, placed on probation for five years, and his hunting and fishing privileges were suspended world-wide. He was later charged with illegal hunting, again, and his probation was revoked. He’s currently serving 11 months in federal prison. Shooting a whooping crane makes a federal case out of it!