Ok, so maybe our goal is to visit all of the US National Parks, but so far we’ve been doing a good job of visiting the US National Wildlife Refuges instead. This time, we were on a mission to see whooping cranes. There are a few good locations to find the tallest North American bird, and one of them is Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (and the nearby Goose Island State Park) in winter.
The refuge boasts some super-friendly volunteers and visitors. We followed a trail with another couple from Illinois, and on our way out, we spoke at length with a friendly naturalist there to photograph the whoopers. They were his sixth endangered species to find in his lifetime.
When we were preparing for our trip, we read all the preparedness statements that are on every Fish and Wildlife Service page. We were ready for no fuel in the area, no grocery stores, no cell towers or 9-1-1 service. We brought food, water, a full tank of gas, and everything we could possibly need in case the car broke down in the desolate scrubland that was described. There would be just us, our car, and the wildlife.
Instead, we arrived to a well-manicured lawn and visitor’s center after skirting several small towns and some farmland.
We were surprised, but we were still prepared for the immense amount of potholes we were sure to encounter. We never did find any potholes on the immaculate roads in the refuge, but we did find quite a few of these little birds:
Eastern phoebes were in the trees, they were in the brush, they were flying over your car, and boy, were they singing.
We stopped the car multiple times to explore the various trails on the refuge. On the Heron Trail, we met the nice couple from Illinois and joined them for a leisurely stroll in which we encountered my first wild alligator. Ever. And despite my expectations that the average alligator was only about 5-6 feet long (about 1.5-2 meters), this bad boy was 8-10 feet long.
We were later told by several people that 8-10 feet is in fact about average for alligators in the area, and that they have been known to reach 14-16 feet. What?! If I ever lived near water in Texas or Florida, I could never go swimming out of fear of getting a leg or an arm snapped off.
And you know, once you see one, you can’t unsee them.
There were alligators on logs; there were alligators sunning themselves on the banks of every single source of water we saw. There were alligators you could barely see above the murky water, floating like the logs we had initially mistaken them for. Heck, there were even alligators trucking along the visitor paths on their way to do all of the above.
What got me most of all was how little the surrounding life seemed to care about their presence. Herons were building nests in the reeds running through the waterways.
We saw this sora picking through debris not two feet away from at least three different alligators, all of which were 6 feet or more in length.
The one bird we saw nowhere near the crocodilians was the one we had come to see:
I was trying to identify some little brown jobby hopping through the brush in front of me when we heard the horn-like call of the cranes. They flew not 20 feet over our heads before circling to land in the marshlands right next to the road. We were so excited that for the rest of the morning, everything seemed just a little greener.
And heck, on the way out, we even saw the silhouettes of two large birds in the farmland right outside the refuge gates. We looked at each other and said “No, it couldn’t be…”
A quick picture confirmed for us, however, that there were two sandhill cranes hanging out in between a group of a dozen or so cattle. I guess there’s a little of everything at Aransas.