Whooping Cranes: A Texas Love Story
By Ian Ozeroff, Earthwatch Program Coordinator
Earthwatch Program Coordinator Ian Ozeroff traveled to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to participate on his first Earthwatch expedition Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitats in Texas. He shares his experience walking through marshes and boating up and down the intercoastal waterway, all the while keeping his eyes peeled for endangered Whooping Cranes.
“Mark.” Jessica announced, firmly, but in a near whisper.
“Alert.” Jeff casually answered.
“Alert.” Cathy repeated as if in echo.
“Interaction.” I finished, excitement tainting my attempted scientific tone.
“Where?” asked Jeff Wozniak, assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Sam Houston State.
“There, flying in from the northwest across the intercoastal,” answered John, who was joining our team for the week representing the International Crane Foundation’s Texas Office.
Loud whoops started to carry across the water from somewhere behind us.
“Write ‘distant calling,’ Mary.”
A week earlier, if you had told me the highlight of my trip to Texas was going to be an interaction between three groups of Whooping Cranes, one of which we couldn’t even see – we would only know the group as “distant calling” – I would have denounced the trip a dud.
But the thing about field research is it takes what seem like boorish everyday occurrences, such as an interaction between three groups of cranes, and orients these events within a narrative that stretches out and touches other species, places, and people all over the world.
Hypothetically, let’s imagine a local Corpus Christi news crew had been interviewing first time Corpus Christi visitors. Waiting on the tarmac at Corpus Christi airport, they ambushed a young half-asleep, sweatpants-wearing city-slicker and asked that young man to describe Corpus Christi, Texas. I would have cobbled together – based on my high-school addiction to “Friday Night Lights” (Go Panthers!) – an answer of “Football, Hunting, and Oil Fields.”
After my week-long Earthwatch expedition studying the Whooping Crane at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge just north of Corpus Christi, my answer would not be much changed. I found that in my conversations with the peoples living in and around San Antonio Bay, the main topics of conversation were in no particular order “Football, Hunting, and Oil.” I would, however, add one additional topic that sets Corpus Christi apart: the Whooping Crane.
This bird, for one, is beautiful.
I’ve never been a birder. In my mind, birding was always lumped together with golf and bridge, in the category of things I would do only when there wasn’t much else I could do. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep appreciation for the animal kingdom, and I recognize the importance of every creature to the function of an ecosystem. But when it comes to animals I would like to study, I’ve always been kind of a “Wizard of Oz” animal lover – “Lions, Tigers, and Bears.”
But, remember what I was saying, this bird is undeniably chic. White plumage, black wingtips, and a forehead that swells a deep red when the bird gets riled up. There should be a basketball team named for this bird and wearing its colors. The Corpus Christi Whooping Cranes sounds pretty fantastic. (You heard it here first, NBA.)
But this bird isn’t just fashionable, this bird is a survivor.
At their peak, 10,000 of these birds used to occupy the gulf wetlands ecosystem, migrating from way up in Northern Canada in summer, down to the American South in winter. These birds had winter homes all along the Gulf Coast and up along the East Coast.
By the mid-1940s, over-hunting and habitat loss had sunk the number of migrating cranes into the teens. But after 80 years of conservation efforts, the number of naturally migrating cranes today is near 700.
Alright, so it’s important to understand why those who study Whooping Cranes distinguish between migratory and non-migratory populations. There are two migratory Whooping Crane populations, the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population that I was studying in Texas, and the Eastern Migratory population. The Aransas population retains the natural migration habits of the pre-colonial Whooping Crane, and thus are critical for crane researchers in crafting a model for natural crane behavior. The Eastern Migratory population is an experimental population of Whooping Cranes introduced into Florida and trained to migrate to Wisconsin to nest.
In addition to the migratory populations, there are several non-migratory populations along the southern Gulf Coast in Louisiana. Currently, only the Aransas population of cranes is self-sustaining, the other populations are experimental, meaning they still rely on the introduction of cranes and eggs for nesting pairs.
At the top of the Aransas lookout tower, Dr. Jeff Wozniak related this epic comeback story to my Earthwatch team on the first evening of our expedition. The sun was setting in a sky as large as I’ve ever stood under, with the horizon as far as I’ve ever seen it. “You can tell any flat-Earthers you meet,” I remember Jeff saying, “if they want proof the Earth is round, travel to the Texas Gulf Coast.”
Blackjack oaks, gnarled as if they had been chewed up and spit out, receded into tall grasses that receded into wetlands before becoming the waters of San Antonio Bay. “It’s so flat, you can tell even a foot or two of elevation change, just by the vegetation change.”
Jeff is an ecosystems ecologist with a focus on wetlands, meaning he uses a wider lens than say a biologist studying Whooping Cranes would. “San Antonio Bay is no more than a couple meters deep at any point,” he points out casually (which to me seems absolutely insane for such a large body of water). “If you blow on a full bathtub, you’re not going to move that water much. But blow on water spilled on a tabletop and what happens?”
What’s funny about ecosystems is that their boundaries can be tough to pin down. Like beaches and waves, they have fluid borders. The San Antonio Bay and the wetlands of San Antonio Bay are part of an estuary system, where freshwater meets the sea. The water in these systems can be as fresh as a Great Lake, or as salty as the ocean. And this fluctuating salinity can dramatically impact animal behavior.
For such photogenic flyers, cranes do not like to do it much. Because they’re so large (around 5 feet tall and between 14-16 pounds) it is by far their most energy-taxing activity. They’d much rather walk around foraging for crabs or berries. Even more so cranes are territorial birds who fiercely guard their feeding ground against other cranes. But a few years ago, in the midst of an intense drought, Jeff’s team was getting calls reporting crane sightings miles inland, as they searched for a sip of fresh water.
Jeff studies the system in a holistic way. The Whooping Crane is a vulnerable part of that system, but it is one character in a Dickensian story. For Jeff, one can’t understand the crane without understanding the story it’s a part of. So, the research we’ll be conducting, Jeff explains, is about contextualizing crane behavior within this swirl of factors and variables.
Each day, we set out in the small research boat – our team includes me and my three lovely Earthwatch volunteers, Destini (Jeff’s student at Sam Houston State), John (a biologist from the International Crane Foundation), and of course, the man himself, Jeff. We cruise around the patchwork of wetland islands and small canals scanning the mottled greens and browns for the signature double white dots that signals a mating pair of cranes. Occasionally, a pair of cranes will have a juvenile with them, recognizable by their caramel streaks, or a group of several cranes that Jeff theorizes is a young adult cohort, who, like boys at a high school dance, have not yet paired up and stick together for security.
I surprise myself with how excited I get every time I see a flash of white on the marsh. Often, Jeff or John will tell me, “no that’s just a group of pelicans.” But as the days fly by, my eye for the landscape sharpens, and I start seeing what Jeff and John don’t.
When cranes are spotted, we drift the boat up as near as Captain Jeff thinks reasonable, we turn our voices down to a whisper, and our binoculars come out. We do 20-minute observations of crane behaviors. These observations are simple. Watch one bird, and every 15 seconds say what it is doing: foraging, resting, locomotion (walking or flying), or the holy grail of crane behaviors (in my opinion at least), interaction.
As I mentioned, Whooping Cranes are very territorial. Jeff showed me a map he had of the wetlands, over which he had drawn in red what he believed were the cranes’ respective territories, each the possession of one mating pair. These boundaries do not make sense to the civilized mind. They are amorphous, some stretching over a canal chopping off parts of different islands. But, the Whooping Cranes have an incredible intuition for their territories, perking their heads up at the slightest encroachment, and rushing after cranes that cross these invisible markers.
See, as the crane population recovers, these interactions seem to be more common. Territories on the prime real estate, it seems, are shrinking and are more cramped. These wandering young adult cohorts who infringe on property rights are also becoming more common and are forced to look for territories in new places.
One evening, as we’re pulling into the boat launch to pack the day up and get started on dinner, we spot two cranes. “I’ve never seen cranes here before,” Jeff whispered, seemingly to himself. “Alright guys, anyone who has the energy for one more observation can stay on the boat and we’re going to do one last one.” Of course, I said yes. The air was golden, the breeze was cool, the landscape was gilded, and I was hooked on cranes.
We pull up and watch this pair as they forage. About five minutes into the observation, a giant black mass starts moving around behind the cranes. “Is that a pig?” I ask.
“Write, ‘Pig behind cranes,’” Jeff whispers to the observer.
Another five minutes pass of pig and crane living in harmony and the cranes lengthen their necks. “They’re gonna fly.” And before I could process, they were off. “Don’t stop observing,” Jeff says as he steps behind the wheel, guns the engine, and we take off after the cranes.
“Did you get the observation?” Destini asked when we got back to the accommodations.
“Oh yeah, we got it.”
We did, and we couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces.
The growing population and subsequent competition for food are pushing birds to create territories in places they haven’t been for decades. “Urban birds” Jeff calls them (incidentally, I think it’s also a fantastic name for a dynamic hip-hop group). We made several observations of one young adult cohort feeding from a bird feeder in a local resident’s backyard. Comparing the behavior of these urban birds, Jeff believes, to the birds who hold territory in the protected, traditional, Whooping Crane habitat at Aransas will inform us what the future may look like for the cranes, and give insights into how adaptable this remarkable creature is.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category 4 storm in Aransas County, Texas. At home in Washington D.C., I heard all over the news about the devastation it brought to Houston, and other metropolitan areas in the area, but it took a couple of days of driving around rural Aransas County over a year later to realize the true impact a storm like this can have on a community.
I was young, in fifth grade, when Katrina hit, and I slept through the only earthquake I’ve ever been close to (it cracked the Washington Monument, yes I’m a strong sleeper). What I thought was a natural sway to many of the blackjack oaks in the area, was the remnants of 120+ mph gales. The beautiful solar equipped welcome center at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is scheduled to be demolished, the result of water damage sustained from the storm surge and rain. Luckily, when the storm hit in late August, the Whooping Cranes were still migrating south from their summer nesting grounds in Canada, but their community in Aransas was devastated.
What is so incredible about complex systems is how responsive and adaptable they are to changing conditions. They can withstand shocks. The landscape I saw in December of 2018 at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is wild, multi-layered, and spectacular. I shocked myself with how much I fell in love with it.
The Whooping Crane, the rare bird that makes its home there, has all the same attributes and an equal effect on me. As the world changes, adapts itself to the conditions human beings are imposing on it, storms like these are part of that systemic response. Science tells us they will only grow more common. The Whooping Crane is in a fragile place. Its habitat and populations are small and thus vulnerable to shocks just like Harvey. The Whooping Crane impacted me in profound ways. I’m just thankful that the research Jeff is doing, the data that I and my team collected, will have profound impacts on the land, the people, and the cranes of East Texas.