by Sara Gurgen
The 20th Annual Whooping Crane Festival, organized by the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce & Tourist Bureau, was my first birding experience—ever, and as one fellow festivalgoer so aptly put it, “You’ve started at the top; most of us start with pigeons and seagulls.”
Before sharing the multitude of magical moments experienced during these fabulous four festival days, Feb. 25 to 28, in nature-filled Port Aransas, Texas, first a bit of background: I reside in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and have a pet-sitting service, a freelance editing/writing business and paint pet portraits. While I’ve always been an animal and nature lover, it wasn’t until several years ago after a sort of spiritual awakening—an epiphany, if you will—in which a whooping crane played a pivotal role that I began reading about the plight of this once nearly extinct creature and other cranes, revered in so many cultures, and embarked on my journey of becoming a full-fledged “craniac,” which culminated after joining the International Crane Foundation immediately upon returning home from the festival.
So entranced by the beauty, grace, elegance and sheer magnitude of the whopping whooper, combined with its mystique and the symbolism surrounding it, I started researching where I could spot this rarity and came across the Platte River, in Nebraska. A tad too cold for my blood, I kept searching until happily hitting upon temperate Port Aransas. To my delight, I discovered that quite a milestone was approaching—the 20th Annual Whooping Crane Festival—and after reading about the lineup of activities and illustrious guest speakers, I eagerly signed up, booked a flight, reserved a room at the charming and historical Tarpon Inn, bought a pair of decent binoculars (upon the advice of my birding friend) and decided to be open to the experience, knowing full well the trip would bear many fruits.
I’m glad to report I ended up with a basketful of fruitful experiences and ripple effects too numerous to mention, and that any fear of feeling like “the odd man out” for never having birded quickly vanished after having one kind birder say to me that the only difference between an experienced birder and a beginner is that an experienced one has misidentified more birds. Boy, did that make me feel good, considering on a whooping crane boat tour to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the wild flock that winters there, I eagerly exclaimed to a very nice birding couple sitting next to me, “Look at the flying whooping cranes!” only to be told very nicely that they were, in fact, egrets. Whoops! Incidentally, the tour guide said we spotted 57 whoopers that trip. Not too shabby, given there are only roughly 600 in existence! He also mentioned that it is very rare to get as close as we managed to do not once but twice. Needless to say, I felt extremely privileged to view these white wonders with the naked eye.
Other trip highlights where I really whooped it up—besides meeting many fellow craniacs, exploring lovely Port A, eating tasty tuna and other succulent seafood, dancing to a variety of great bands, and purchasing an exquisite crane necklace at the tradeshow—include being a part of the “Wine, Whine & Design Whoopers” event, where we got to paint our own crane, thanks to the help of our experienced and patient art teacher (of course, the more we drank the better we thought our paintings looked!); attending the breathtaking photography art reception “Siberian Cranes in Asia,” where I got to meet the incredible Chinese photographer Zhongjie Zheng and be hugged by Hope (a 7-foot tall whooping crane Muppet created by the Jim Henson Company)—I later learned that the being residing inside Hope was none other than the cofounder and senior conservationist of the International Crane Foundation, the world-renowned crane expert Dr. George Archibald; partaking in the “Luncheon with Tom Stehn,” during which I was enthralled by his entertaining stories of his time as U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator and wildlife biologist at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, as well as funny tales pertaining to his retirement years; learning so much about crane conservation efforts from the esteemed speakers at the “Whooping Crane Experts Roundtable”; and, finally, being so fortunate as to have Tony Amos, director of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute's Animal Rehabilitation Keep, lead our birding van tour because the original guide was unable to make it. Imagine being escorted by such a local legend through the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, one of the state’s top birding boardwalks, as he comments on the flora and fauna, including two alligators (one of which he helped rehabilitate!). He also took us to “his” beach, named after him for his years of dedication to Port Aransas beaches.
I was so inspired by Amos and his rehabilitation efforts that as soon as I returned home, I volunteered with the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol and will begin my sunrise walks looking for turtle tracks in early May! I also plan on going on many more birding trips, the first of which will be next week at Huntington Beach State Park, in Murrells Inlet, not far from my home, which I hear is the best spot for birding in South Carolina.
A big thank you to the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce & Tourist Bureau for putting on this much-needed event and to all the hard-working experts and great-spirited festivalgoers—and, of course, to the stars of the show: the awe-inspiring whooping cranes, who I sincerely hope continue making a rebound and one day will no longer be on the endangered species list.
Sara Gurgen resides in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., where she runs her pet-sitting service, freelance editing/writing business and paints pet portraits. Connect at SaraGurgen@aol.com.