by Dahna Branyan
Climate change and habitat loss, both tied to human activity, are taking a heavy toll on the birds and other critters. It is hard to truly know how many are now extinct or near extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) put that number at 159 species as of January, 2021. However, at the end of 2021 the Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed re-classifying 11 birds (and 12 other species) removing them from the US endangered list to extinct in the US alone. We are still discovering species, so undiscovered birds have likely gone extinct before they could even be named or counted. Many scientists are referring to these losses as the Sixth Extinction Event, or Anthropocene Extinction due to man’s effect on the planet. You can read more about this and previous extinction events here: https://www.amnh.org/shelf-life/six-extinctions
This fuels my desire to learn more about the natural world, especially birds. But climate change is also making it harder and harder to talk Pat into escaping the cold winter weather and heading for the beach in South Texas. On Christmas we ate dinner with the windows open wearing short sleeves. It was a “brisk” 88˚ ! Why go anywhere when the weather is just fine where you are? La-Z-Boy is not just a recliner in Egypt.
One chilly morning before that though, I convinced him to head to Goose Island State Park for some warm, salt air and an early “Christmas” bird count. While the park has recovered from Hurricane Harvey, over four years ago, the birds have not yet bounced back from last February’s deep freeze — directly tied to climate change. According to meteorologists, an unusual warming event in the Arctic weakened the Polar Vortex that keeps frigid air up there and shunted it down south to Texas.
At first, I thought we had beaten the bird migration to the coast because there were noticeably fewer birds than any of our prior visits to the park. But after talking with a local birder, I realized what a devastating toll those frigid temperatures last winter took on the shore birds. Many birds that did not succumb to the cold had trouble finding food since the shallow water fish and shellfish were also impacted by the storm. She told me that they managed to survive the first night of the freeze, but the second night took a heavy toll.
She was still heartbroken over the loss and confided that after Hurricane Harvey and the Big Freeze, she was ready to move away from the bad memories she harbored of those two events. Having mourned my own Eastern Phoebe colony, frozen to death by those same frigid temperatures, I had some idea of how she felt.
The Lost Dances of Cranes
– Julie Wilson
Your fields are empty now
Only your ghosts dance
while cranes of another kind
dance cities into being
All that remain of your are
a fading crackle of your energy
and some grainy video footage
That people in the new cities
will watch to marvel
at the wonder the world
One big draw to Goose Island and nearby Aransas Wildlife Refuge is that it’s the winter home to a number of Whooping Cranes, and you can count on seeing these magnificent birds when you visit. Once estimated to have numbered in the tens of thousands, the Whoopers were driven to near extinction by loss of habitat and severe over-hunting for meat and plumage. In 1938 there were only 28 birds remaining until a hurricane in 1940 reduced their number even further.
Today, it is a joy for birders to see their numbers rebound due to the efforts of the National Audubon Society and the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. Thanks to their great work protecting and expanding habitat, improving public education and successfully lobbying for a ban on hunting, the crane population has grown to a bit more than 500 — still a small number, but thankfully growing. So, it was especially heartening to see proud Whooper parents this year showing off their twin babies.
It’s hard to get close enough to these birds to capture just how big they are. The largest birds in North America, fully grown, they are about 5+ feet tall and their wingspan can extend to nearly 8 feet.
Whoopers feast on blue crabs, abundant in the park’s shallow waters and wetlands, along with other crustaceans, frogs, small fishes, and even small mammals. Goose Island also provides habitat for the wolfberries they love. The bushes were blooming this December but offer the promise of a sweet snack in the spring before they head back to their summer home.
I assumed our visits were at the wrong time of year because as many times as we’ve visited this park, I have yet to see a goose here. I checked the park’s birding checklist and it seems that sightings even in winter are rare. So, how did the island park get named for these birds? While Goose Island and the Texas coast from Sabine Pass to Corpus Christi was once the winter home to many thousands of geese, both habitat and food availability have changed. Accordingly, the geese have altered their habits. Rice and sorghum farming became more efficient, leaving less grain for them to forage.
Meanwhile, the state’s coastal landowners began catering more to duck hunters providing more habitat for them at the expense of goose habitat. At the same time, corn and grain production increased further north along their flyway offering ample forage while shortening their southward commute. Wetlands from reservoirs and power plants provide nesting habitats close to corn and grain fields. So while Texas might be good at attracting new businesses with low taxes and incentives, it is losing out to Oklahoma and Kansas in attracting geese. Climate change might help keep them further north.
Although the geese were AWOL and the total bird count was down, there was still a good variety. The pelicans, herons and other wading birds were happy to take up some of the slack. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are always on dignified display and more visible because of their size.
While White Pelicans predominate the Goose Island population, Brown Pelicans are making a comeback. After WWII, the use of organochlorine pesticides, including DDT, severely interrupted their life cycle by making their shells so thin they often could not withstand incubation and their numbers plummeted. Their addition to the Endangered Species list and the regulation of that class of pesticides greatly helped increase their numbers along the Texas coast over the past few decades.
I love to watch the pelicans glide just above the water looking for food. Then, flying back a bit higher, Brown Pelicans often dive bomb their prey from the air. Watching a squadron fly over the bay to spot their prey, do a sharp 180˚, and dive on their targets is as much fun as an airshow.
The White Pelicans, by contrast, have a much more sedate feeding routine. A pod will paddle around to spot a group of fish and then dunk their heads in unison to fill their pouches with small fish. It’s like watching a synchronized swimming event. It’s startling to see them out of the water, mainly because they are big birds that have very large bright orange legs and feet. Zooming in on a tern next to a pelican on a sandbar, it was amazing to see their stout legs and feet.
Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are always about and more visible because of their size. The smaller Snowy Egret and Little Blue herons tend to forage more in the wetlands, inconspicuous among the cordgrass and sedges. But sometimes they fly in and land practically next to you and pose like the Little Blue below. Little Blue Herons are more or less stationary hunters, moving only slowly while waiting for a fish to pass by. The Snowy Egrets feed more actively. It’s fun to watch them walk or run, splashing their bright yellow feet through shallow water, startling their prey.
Tri-color herons are slender herons with graceful, long necks. I love to watch a Tri fold his neck close to its body and when the right moment comes, they strike out at their prey like a coiled snake.
Although I saw fewer gulls and terns (gull family Laridae) in gross numbers, I did see more different species, especially the terns. At Heron Flats on the west end of the island, they gather out on the sandbars which are mostly too far away to get good photos of small birds, even with a good lens. But I take the photos anyway because it helps identify what you’ve seen. Gulls and terns look quite a bit alike to the untrained eye (I still have my training wheels attached), but gulls tend to be larger with a hooked bill, while terns are smaller with straight bills, shorter legs, and webbed feet. In flight they are easier to identify. Terns have more streamlined wings than gulls and forked tails. When feeding they tend to hover above their prey and then dive bomb to catch it.
Black skimmers are also common at Goose Island and could be seen on the sandbars sunning with the other seabirds. They are the most interesting of the gulls and terns. Their distinctive black wings with a white breast and uneven orange bill make them easy to spot. Their lower mandible plows the water and when it encounters a fish, the shorter upper mandible, or maxilla, clamps down on it like a spring trap. This tactile hunting method allows them to feed even at night. And day or night, because they feed on the rising tide, they are also known as flood gulls.
Because they feed heavily on molluscs, Oystercatchers are normally found somewhat offshore, close to shallow oyster beds, so they are usually out of camera range. This one wasn’t.
Every year when we come to Goose Island, I meet more and more birders. Since the pandemic it seems that folks have found RVing to be a safe way to travel and birding has become an increasingly popular travel activity. With our binoculars and cameras hanging from our necks, we are easy to identify. Oh look, there’s a Quebecoise birder over there. You can tell by her license plates. I should have taken a picture, but that was impossible with my 150-600mm lens. She was a very friendly and knowledgeable birder who showed me the difference between male and female Northern Harriers.
At the end of the day, I headed back to the trailer before Patrick sent out a search party. After the long drive to get here, he enjoyed a day of lolling about and even started a post of our last Las Cruces trip. We took Sacha for a long walk, careful to keep her out of the sandburs that cover the park. Back at the trailer, it was time to sit outside with a sundowner watching the sunset before dinner. Perfect.
It was a good thing I spent the first day birding. The next day we awoke to fog and light rain and a great excuse to go back to bed. Finally, when the clouds began to lift a bit, we sat outside with coffee and enjoyed the sea breeze with the sun shining through the mist. Out in the bay we could hear a loon’s plaintive cry calling for its mate. We finally caught sight of the loon but never saw its mate. Later in the day I spotted a lone female Red-breasted Merganser diving for fish out in the bay. These mergansers are one of the fastest ducks in the air, and can fly up to 80 mph!
The next day Patrick wanted to revisit to Port Aransas and look at the boats in City Marina. We have fond memories of our sailing our ketch, S/V Alchemy, down to Port A. Although our lovely anchorage in the Lydia Ann Channel opposite the lighthouse has become a barge parking lot, the marina is still there and has seen improvements. Those old ricketty piers have been replaced with floating docks, but dolphins still fish in the lanes and though we didn’t see them this time, I am sure the sea turtles do as well.
We walked the docks admiring the boats. Many lovely old sailboats have been replaced by large sport fishing boats, but there are still enough sloops and cutters to make you want to cast off the lines and head out into the gulf. It’s been years since we sailed these waters, but I remember every detail of our boat – how she smelled and how she felt underway with the wind in her sails, ghosting along on a moonless night with the Milky Way dusting the sky like powdered sugar. I can still tell you where everything was stowed. I dream of those days with sails taut on a beam reach and of those nights at anchor in the Lydia Ann with halyards slapping the mast while dolphins spout around the hull — heady days and silky nights.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tides
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sigh. After letting Sacha sniff every smelly thing in the marina and nearby park, we stowed our memories and headed back, but not before a short stop at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center. This small wetland behind the waste treatment plant serves as a rookery for various seabirds. You can always find a large contingent of Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers here, along with a number of wading birds. You might spot an alligator or two enjoying the birds. On this day there were also two Whooping Cranes in the distance.
On our last full day we were met with more fog. After it lifted, we took a drive over to Holiday Beach to see how the houses on the Copano Bay side fared from the hurricane, Many of the old beach houses were gone, replaced by taller, beefier more expensive homes that might withstand the next one. While it’s nice to see all the re-building, it is sad to know that a lot of it was at the expense of the under-insured homeowners who couldn’t afford to rebuild their weekend homes and had to sell out to make way for the new. We saw that happen after Hurricane Ike hit Bolivar Penninsula and property values skyrocketed. The long arc of progress tends toward the wealthy, I guess.
I did get to see a few more birds that afternoon. Walking Sacha down to the fishing pier, we spotted Long-billed Curlews in the shallows hunting for mud crabs and other burrowing prey. Closer to shore were a few Semi-palmated Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones feeding. On a last swing by Heron Flats we found my favorite water birds. The Roseate Spoonbills seined through the mud for small mud shrimp and other prey.
The next morning offered a clear sunny day perfect for birding, but our time here was up, so we started our long migration north back to Comanche and waved goodbye to the birds. Maybe we’ll see them again as they fly over our Comanche home heading back north in Spring.
Oh, and the bird count? I sighted 62 different species at Goose Island and 25 at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center. I’m good with that.