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Baltimore by the Sea

Monday, November 14, 2011

Whooping it up on the Skimmer

I ought to have seen Whooping Cranes already. I mean, back in 1998 I was Aransas National Wildlife Refuge but there were no cranes about at the time. Back then I could have gone out on a boat to see them but my luck, there were no boats available for crane seeking due to a major Coast Guard boat inspection.

Add to the above, I saw two wild Whooping Cranes in Florida. But noooo... they didn't count for my life list either; Whoopers being recent re-introductions to the sunshine state. So! Texas, 2011 had to be my year for adding Whooping Cranes to my life list. Or so I hoped when I left Harlingen on Sunday night, heading north west on the Texas coast.

Aransas Visitor Center

On Monday morning when I arrived at Aransas it was Deja vu time - well no wonder. In 1998 on arriving at the Aransas Visitor Center, I sheepishly asked the docents for a 'lady Ranger'. The were baffled as to why I requested a 'lady' Ranger at first. I told them, and after they laughed, they fetched one for me. The lady Ranger and I climbed into a broom closet so I could pull up my shirt and have her pull an embedded Lone Star tick out of my back. Deja vu? Yeah, well you don't forget that sort of mini-adventure in a hurry.

The scene of the Great Tick Adventure of 1998
- the Aransas Visitor Center's former broom closet

Flash forward to 2011 and this visit, I was totally tick & chigger free. Sadly, on the birdie front, the news remained the same: no visible cranes that could be seen from the land portion of the refuge. Bugger! But this time, there were boats available for Crane tours. Hurrah! I headed south to Fulton Harbor where I caught a ride on the Skimmer.

The Skimmer's captain, Tommy, is himself a birder who knows what birders are looking for.

The Skimmer

When all the birders were aboard, the Skimmer headed out of the harbor, and on the way, a small school of Bottle-nosed Dolphins tailed us, on the far side of the harbor break.

Bottlenosed Dolphins cresting

Soon we were out crusing along the coast of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in areas that can't be accessed without a boat - or fins.

View from Captain's level

The captain had his eye out, and inside of say a half hour, he spotted our first Whooping Cranes - my LIFER Whooping Cranes - lifer #600 for me!

My wwwaaayyy out there lifer whoopers

What? You're saying there's nothing in that photo above? Can't you see the four little white specks? Those were live, walking, Whooping Cranes! Honestly - take my word for it.

Ok, I was disappointed the first look was of birds so far away, but the day was young. After checking out the cranes with spotting scopes, the Captain promised us better views and we were off again. He pointed out all sorts of coastal birds of wetlands as we sailed along. The Captain spotted Roseate Spoonbills. He shouted, "Hey! There are some Spoonbills! Who doesn't love a BIG PINK BIRD!"

I cracked up. He was right. Who doesn't love a giant, baby pink birdie?

Everyone loves BIG PINK BIRDS!

One thing about the Skimmer, something special that most, if not all, of the other tour boats ca not do is - it can quietly lodge itself onto the sandy shore of little islets, turn off the engines and then... SHUT THE **** UP! That means one can happily bird without terrifying the birds with engine noises. Ahhh! Soon Captain Tommy has nestled the boat onto a sand bank and just beyond, were a pair of Whooping Cranes so close I could see the color of their eyes with my binoculars.

Pair of Whoopers

Aren't they majestic? They're HUGE! Larger than Great Blue Herons and I just adore their white feathery bussles, the height of fashion - if it were the 1800s. We sated ourselves watching the two cranes walk elegantly along, bent over, watching for a snack.

Whooper close-up

You may want to click on the photos for a larger look. After taking a good b'jillion photos of these birds, I looked overboard and noticed there were Moon Jellies floating around in the algaed waters around the Skimmer. You may as well know now - jelly fish get me all excited and squeally. Embarrassing really.

Moon Jelly!

After nice long looks at the Whoopers, we were off again to see what we could see. There were loads of water birds. Fosters terns, numerous shorebird species, and humongous White Pelicans.

White Pelicans

Captain Tommy took us to some islets, one of which had strange looking platforms, built so Herons - Reddish and/or Great Blue - could have places on which to build their nests. One such structure had a surprise on it - a Peregrine Falcon with piercing eyes.

Built by volunteers - Heron/Egret Rookery

Close-up Peregrine

Just opposite the isle of Peregrine, was a narrow strip of sand, and on it were American Oystercatchers. Here is a close up of one below. I love how the light shown right through its crayon orange bill.

This Oystercatcher had ID bands, one on each leg

Another bird that was a pleasure to see were dozens of Sandwich Terns. I only ever saw this species once before in Florida. They crack me up for this silly reason: they are called Sandwich Terns - and if you look carefully, you can see a big dab of mayonaise on the end of their bills, after all, we all like a little mayo on our Sandwich. Check out the third bird from the left, it's most obvious on its bill. Too cute! Click photo for a better look.

Squabbling Sandwich Terns, with that dab o' mayo

Reddish Egret on one breezy islette

The Skimmer, back at port

What a fun way to spend an afternoon, and to pick up one's landmark 600th ABA area lifer. After Aransas I returned to Harlingen and had another day worth of adventures. Then before I knew it, I was flying back to Sacramento for a rest up from my vacationing. Retirement is AWESOME I'm telling you!

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