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Planning to go south this winter? Visit the whooping cranes

The bugling cry of a whooping crane echoed across the salt marsh, and I was thrilled. For me, it was a dream come true. If you’re a winter Texan (like many retired Manitobans), or planning a short visit to that state, you too can enjoy the sound and sight of this rare bird.

Most Manitobans know the story of the whooping crane, a magnificent bird that stands almost five feet tall and has a seven-foot wingspan. The tallest bird in North America, it has been brought back from the brink of extinction (from a low count of 15 in 1941 to the present-day total of about 260. Many of us also know that the whoopers, which are named for their trumpeting call in flight, spend their winters in the far American South, and their summers in remote sections of Wood Buffalo National Park (located in northern Alberta and a small southern section of the Northwest Territories, south of Great Slave Lake.) The flight between these spots takes about four weeks and covers some 3,500 kilometres!

A few lucky people may even have seen whooping cranes flying overhead, for very occasionally they do pass through Manitoba, although Saskatchewan is a more common flyway, with infrequent stops at some of the lakes such as Last Mountain Lake. (If you do see large cranes, don’t confuse them with the sandhill crane, a slightly smaller, grey version that is much more common. Whoopers have snow-white plumage, with black wing tips showing in flight.)

Viewing whooping cranes in Canada can be difficult since the nesting grounds in the north are not easily accessible. But it is possible to see them in the wild in their winter home in southern Texas. If you ever go south in winter, and if you’re interested in seeing whooping cranes up close, start planning a visit to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a bird sanctuary along the Gulf coast of southern Texas. Last winter we were fortunate enough to see and photograph these beautiful birds on a short trip to that region.

For years I’d been wishing I could see whooping cranes up close, but it was only when I read about the Aransas Refuge that I realized it was possible. A pair or family group of three cranes is usually visible from the refuge observation tower from early November through March, but the best views available are from boat tours that take visitors through salt marshes teeming with life. Three boat companies, based in nearby Rockport and Port Aransas, travel out daily into the refuge to give bird lovers close-up views of the cranes. We booked a trip and found it excellent. The guide was very knowledgeable about the whooping cranes and about all the other birds viewed on the trip – such as brown pelicans, egrets, roseate spoonbills, oyster catchers and numerous other shorebirds. We took the early-morning tour, and spent the entire time outside at the front of the boat watching the birds and the occasional dolphin while we snapped photographs. (It was a cool morning and most of the others preferred to sit inside in the glassed-in section, but we joked that we were tough Canadians, used to cold weather.)

Don’t expect to see a large flock of whooping cranes since they stay in pairs or family groups (usually three) scattered at intervals through the Aransas Refuge. This winter the officials are hoping for a record population since apparently there were a good number of chicks fledged on the nesting grounds in the summer. But with less than 300 birds in this flock, they’re still endangered. Fires in the Wood Buffalo National Park, a hurricane in the Aransas Refuge area, or an oil spill in the Gulf waters could easily result in the entire flock being wiped out.

If you do take a trip to the Aransas Refuge, remember your binoculars and bird book. On our drive through the refuge we also saw an alligator and several armadillos, but for me the highlight of our visit to the refuge was definitely the magnificent whooping cranes.

More information is available on the Internet at www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/Texas/ aransas/whoopingcranes. html.

– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba

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