ONE OF THE WORLD'S TOP 100 BIRDING EXPERIENCES WITHOUT A DOUBT is a visit to Aransas NWR in South Texas. It has been on my 'to do' list for a long time and after this year's RGV birding festival I finally got around to it. With such conspicuous birds it is more a case of how close the birds are rather than whether or not you are going to see them and the classic way to do this is via a Whooping Crane Tours boat trip out of Rockport on Captain Tommy Moore's 'Skimmer'. The boat trip was very enjoyable, happily on a still and sunny day, it was even quite warm at times out on the water. Captain Tommy is great fun, very knowledgeable and tries hard to point out as many birds as possible, not just the cranes and we saw a good variety of waterbirds including most of the herons and egrets and several shorebirds, including plenty of (Western) willets. Kevin Karlson told me recently that research has suggested that all Eastern Willets spend the winter outside the USA so all east coast birds in winter are likely to be Westerns. A total of around 50 species included a Peregrine sheltering under the heron nesting platforms in Carlos Bay and a pair of Hooded Mergansers on a small pool near Sundown Bay.
It is the cranes that are everyone's main desire on the boat trips and, whilst interesting, other birds are incidental for most folks aboard. Being 1.5 metre tall they can be seen from a vast distance and are easily identified from the many Great Egrets by their usually horizontal backs. We were lucky that there were a couple of family groups fairly close to the main shipping channel, otherwise our views could have been much more distant. The coastal landscape here is truly massive and it is very easy to underestimate the size of the vast bays enclosed by the barrier islands... until you check the scale of the map. One of the pairs was also calling to each other, apparently a warning call referring to us so we did not pause here too long. There are not too many birds down to three figures in North America and it was a special privilege to spend some time with the Whooping Cranes.