Three gangly white birds are prodding the marsh with their long beaks at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. And on this Sunday morning, they have an audience.
Peering through the rapid shutter snaps of zoom lenses, a flock of bird watchers are enjoying a rare whooping crane performance.
“Two parents and a young colt that was hatched this summer and they came down to spend the winter in the Aransas Pass National Refuge,” said Pat White, a bird watcher who lives near Rockport.
“Right now, they are just foraging for wolf berries. That’s one of their main sources of food — blue crabs and wolf berries,” she said.
Patty Berry, an enthusiastic birder who traveled from St. Louis to see the "whoopers," is among the group.
“I’m anticipating that we’re going to see more whooping cranes and at closer range, and that’s always good because we like the photography angle of it too,” she said. “So what our lenses can’t get us, the boat will hopefully get us.”
The endangered whooping crane is the tallest North American bird and is named for its distractive “whooping” call.
Skimmer Captain Tommy Moore leads the birding tour and gives a play-by-play about the local environment, from exotic birds to dolphins playing in the boat’s wake.
“There are two to three hundred of these dolphins in the immediate bay system, according to state fisheries,“ said Moore over the boat’s intercom.
But it’s the whooping cranes that people come from around the planet to see. This is the only wild migrating reproducing flock of whoopers in the world, and Moore said this year they are looking good.
“They look fat and happy to me,” he said. “When we had that really bad drought, you could tell that their breast bone was sticking out. But yeah, these are looking real good.”
The status of the cranes is some needed good news for Rockport Mayor Charles Wax. On December 4, when he testified to Texas lawmakers about his town’s economic recovery, his assessment was grim.
“What drives my economy, it’s tourism. Five drivers — the Fulton Manson, Texas State Maritime Museum, the Rockport Center for the Arts, the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor and the Bay Education Center. Of the five, two don’t exist anymore,” he said.
The Aquarium and the Rockport Center for the Arts were destroyed. The other attractions are damaged.
“But if I had guests coming to town to visit those — or to fish or to bird — all of my major hotels are still closed,” Wax said.
The lack of hotel rooms creates multiple problems for bringing back the tourism economy. The most obvious is that if visitors come, they will stay in nearby communities like Corpus Christi, and Rockport misses out on the hotel occupancy tax, which is spent on promoting the area as a tourism destination.
“My sales tax has disappeared. My property tax is estimated to be 35 percent lower next year,” he said.
Wax said the city will either have to cut back on services or raise property taxes, which is an added burden on the remaining residents.
“I need either a government grant or a low-cost government loan to cover the loss that I have as a result of that disaster. I’ve got to have that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rockport has one tourist draw that can’t be found anywhere else.
“And this is what you’ll typically see when you see whooping cranes in the wild,” said Moore, during his boat tour.
Moore said that since Hurricane Harvey, it’s been tough for his business.
“It’s just hard to get a trip together, and right now we’ve got to watch our expenses,” he said. “We just pull trips slower and do fewer trips with more folks.”
Also on board is 93-year-old Ray Little, known as the “Dean of Texas Coastal Birding.”
“I studied the whooping cranes because we knew they would be extinct within the next few years,” he said. “So I have been partial to the whooping cranes since 1940.”
Little is credited with helping educate the public about the whoopers and help build their numbers back up from about three dozen to more than 300.
And one bird watcher said they are inspired by the whooping cranes because if they were able to come back to the brink, so will Rockport.