Aransas Memory

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Aransas Coyote

I visited Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in November of 2014 and saw Whooping Cranes for the first time. I subsequently wrote an article based on my visit – published in Hakai Magazine in 2015. I had hoped to see the birds last November when I was again at Aransas. Since I didn’t take a boat tour, which is the only sure way to view the birds, my expectations were low. Good job, because I saw not a single one of the 300 or so individuals parading about somewhere in these precious marshes – a reminder of how few Whoopers there are in the world. Still, Aransas is a wonderful place, with a variety of wildlife everywhere – Spoonbills, Ibis, Caracara, White-tailed Hawk, and much more. Lots and lots to see.

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Black Skimmers

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Feral Pig

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Long-billed Curlew

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Crested Caracara

As for the cranes, not much has changed. It’s still a precarious existence for these magnificent birds. Loss of habitat at either end of the migration, or a catastrophic event en route, could eliminate the species. More environmental protection is needed, not less. My article, originally titled Whooping Cranes vs Big Oil follows.

Whooping Cranes Vs Big Oil (Hakai, April 23, 2015)

I’m on a boat in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas viewing whooping cranes on their wintering grounds. They come for the blue crab that abounds in these muddy, cordgrass flats. Many forage in family groups—two white, red-capped adults and a fawn-coloured juvenile. True to their name, the “whoopers” are noisy, trumpeting and dancing to intimidate rivals or strengthen pair bonds.

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Whooping Cranes ‘Dancing’

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Whooping Cranes – On Territory

I’m delighted to see the birds at last. They belong to the Wood Buffalo/Aransas flock, numbering about 300—the entire free population of the tallest bird in North America. The dozen I’ll see today, on this side trip from Harlingen and the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, are my first, but I’ve followed their story since my boyhood in the 1960s. Then, fewer than 50 existed and their survival seemed doubtful.

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Crabbing

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‘Whooping’

Conserving the cranes is an ongoing challenge. They nest in remote Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and winter in southern Texas—4,000 kilometers each way. Females lay two eggs but only one chick usually survives—the weaker is killed by its sibling or a predator. Ironically, the surplus chicks helped save the cranes. Scientists gathered and hatched “extra” eggs and slowly rebuilt the flock. The International Crane Foundation uses a variation of that method today in efforts to build a second flock. ICF volunteers dress as adult cranes to ensure chicks bond with other whoopers and use ultra-light aircraft to teach juveniles to fly. Crane conservation is about commitment and, I think, love.

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Drilling Rig, Port Aransas

At Aransas a barge carrying a Blowout Preventer Valve (BOP) passes a feeding crane family, temporarily blocking my view. BOPs seal underwater oil wells. Threat and threatened are instantly juxtaposed. Unlike the cranes, I know what happens when a BOP fails. When one blew on the Deep Water Horizon Well in 2010, escaping oil destroyed coastal marshes like Aransas from Louisiana to Florida. Another such spill could wipe out wild whooping cranes forever. Nor are the birds secure in Wood Buffalo—Alberta’s Oil Sands are just south of the nesting grounds.

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Crane Family

I overnight in Corpus Christi near its brightly-lit petroleum refineries, and reflect on whooping cranes and Big Oil. In the darkened marshes, the birds likely watch for prowling bobcats and coyotes, their ancestral enemies, unaware of an omnipresent and vastly greater danger.

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Observatory Hill-Pygmy Owl Hunting

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The Fog Clears

It was bright and clear at sea level when I left home this morning but by the time I get to the top of Observatory Hill heavy cloud is moving in and drifting down into the trees. Red-barked Arbutus, pale maples and the rocky bones of the mountain become ghostly, moss-draped forms; the boles of giant firs, alleys of indistinct columns. I take the trail past one of the smaller telescope-covering domes (the reason it’s called Observatory Hill) and go down into the mist. I can hear birds – nuthatches, drumming woodpeckers, kinglets, a Varied Thrush – but aside from a half dozen Ravens, an Anna’s Hummingbird and a few Dark-eyed Juncos, I see nada. I had hoped to luck into a Northern Pygmy Owl, my real goal this morning. They live up here reportedly and hunt in the daytime, and I have yet to get a picture of one of these fierce little hunters. Now, with the fog, I’m expecting I’ll be plumb out of luck today.

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Dark-eyed Juncos

I hike through the gloomy forest, being careful to stay on trails I know. I’ve been lost in forests before and I do not like the feeling. After an hour or so, a light breeze arrives, quickens, changes direction and begins to scour the cloud from my side of the ‘mountain’. I pause on a rock outcrop for a view of Prospect Lake. It’s so quiet, so peaceful. A young Bald Eagle cruises past, gives me the ‘hairy eyeball’ and carries on. Fine. I’m leaving anyway. After a couple of hours on a cold, foggy mountaintop, I’m ready for a cup of hot coffee and, just maybe, a donut.

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Bald Eagle

On my way back up through the firs, I hear something – the clear, repeated  ‘toots’ of a Pygmy Owl calling. And from the other side of the trail, a hundred meters or so away, another bird, ‘tooting’ back. I think they do this, male and female counter-calling. They might stand still for a photo if I could just find them. The mist lingers here and there and the sound seems to move around, making it hard to locate the Pygmy. I never do get a picture. My reward for stalking the birds is a brief flash of underwing, and those sounds. Still, the owls are here, on Observatory Hill. Next chance I get, next clear early morning, I’ll be up here searching.

 

Sometimes the light is just right…

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Good grief, snow again!

None of my target birds seem to want to make themselves available today. It’s cold again at Swan Lake. A chill east wind generated, they say, by La Nina (with a tilde) persists. Even today in March, when we should be counting blooms, we’re getting transient and unexpected snow squalls. Happily, they pass quickly but the sky stays overcast, threatening. In this weather, few people are out on the trails so it’s quiet. Nice. I like the solitude. It’s when I feel closest to nature, the closest I come to walking meditation. I take a number of shots of Anna’s Hummingbirds just because, and of a young Redtail watching the meadow. A proper photographer would probably have picked up on the quality of the light. Not me. I’m just hoping for the best. It’s when I’m home, and have uploaded the day’s ‘catch’ that I discover, once again, that it’s good to keeping shooting because, well, you never know. I couldn’t have gotten better views of the male’s fantastic gorget and head colours if I’d schemed and planned, or got the depth of field as right as I think I did.

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Redtail Hawk

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Anna’s Hummingbird

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Anna’s Hummingbird

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow on Maui

 

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Kanaha Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Maui

Oh -my title – sorry about that. Agatha Christie once joked that a writer who opened a story with the line “Hell!” said the Duchess couldn’t help but grab the attention of a reader. I’m hoping the title of this post will perform the same function. Happily, no snow is falling on Maui. No need to abort a vacation — or panic. Still, to me, the six young Snow Geese I saw at Kanaha Ponds seem almost as out of place as the white stuff.

I’m fascinated with rare birds and their stories. What freak wind or event sent these teenagers off into the vast Pacific? How did they find this remote island thousands of miles away from the Arctic sloughs where they hatched? How will they find their way back? It’s a work in progress, I suppose. For the time being, at least, their futures are linked, this little band of goose kids a long way from home.

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Snow on Maui

The Snow Geese rarities aren’t the only fascinating birds at Kanaha. NeNe Goose, a bird I’ve wanted to meet since I was a boy, nests here. Not terribly long ago, NeNes were one of the rarest birds in the world, only thirty individuals on their way to extinction, saved at the last minute by captive breeding and the heroic efforts of volunteers and governments. NeNe live from here at sea level to the cinder plains high up on Haleakala, the volcano that looms nearby. They’re quite tame and still need protection. Slim, fast, ferocious Mongooses are a particular threat, killing goslings and, I think, eating eggs. NeNe are still the rarest geese in the world, by the way.

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NeNe

At home, I go to great lengths to try to see a Pacific Golden Plover, vainly searching every passing flock of Black-bellied Plovers for a bird without black armpits, a good identifier. Pacific Goldens are common here, seen on most lawns and boulevards. Now, in February, they are already forming pair bonds and defending territory. In a few months they’ll start for Alaska, a distance of almost five thousand kilometers, and they’ll do the flight in three days. Non-stop, sixty-five kilometers an hour! Then they’ll come back to exactly the same place in Maui in the fall. The birds I’m seeing here are truly home, on their special spots at Kanaha, on Maui.

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Pacific Golden Plover

Wandering Tattlers also make the long journey from northwestern North America to Hawaii. I love that name! Hawaiians call them Ulili, after the sound of their call. Lovely too. Messenger birds. The Hawaiian singer Iz wrote a song about them. Two Ulili wander amongst the many noisy Black-necked Stilts who populate the shallows. There are Sanderling and a couple of Ruddy Turnstones here too. Nice.

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Wandering Tattler

I’ve quickly grown fond of Kanaha Ponds but then I always like the solitude, and the life, of marshes, especially early in the day. This morning, the warm wind blows strong and the handsome Chestnut Munia which forage in small flocks use it to move quickly from place to place — and are consequently very hard to photograph.

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Chestnut Munia

Both Northern and Red-crested Cardinals are more cooperative. Both species are active enough to indicate mating season is in progress, although the Northern Cardinal looks a bit shabby. Now I’m wondering – when is mating season here? Both Cardinals are introduced birds as are the Munia and others, like Common Mynahs. There are few native Hawaiian species at sea level now. Most have succumbed to mosquito borne diseases (mosquitoes are also not native to Hawaii). You have to go high up the mountain to find the beautiful, colourful honey creepers. I’ll do that soon.

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Northern Cardinal

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Red-crested Cardinal

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Red Junglefowl

A few Red Junglefowl forage in amongst the low plants at the edges of the ponds. Junglefowl, the ancestors of chickens. Quite spectacular really — if you don’t think chicken.