Thursday, December 9, 2021

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge - Texas

Aransas NWR is found on the Gulf Coast of Texas and consists of 115,324 acres situated northeast of Corpus Christi. It is divided into five units
          The Matagorda Island Unit, the largest, is 56,683 acres and covers most of the 38 mile long Matagorda Island, a barrier island off the Texas coastline. It is a buffer to the coast from hurricanes, winter storms and ocean waves. The ocean facing beaches and dunes are nesting grounds for Kemp's Ridley sea turtles and habitat for piping plovers. The side facing the coast has freshwater lagoons that are used by whooping cranes and reddish egrets.  
          The Aransas Unit, situated on the Blackjack peninsula, opposite the southwestern end of Matagorda Island, is the main unit and consists of 47,261 acres.  It is surrounded by Saint Charles Bay on the west, Carlos Bay on the southeast, Mesquite Bay a little further north and San Antonio Bay on the northeast. These shallow bays are impacted by winds which cause the land to go from salt, to brackish and then to freshwater marsh, which provide a wide diversity of wildlife. The salt tolerant plants diminish the impact of waves and tides, filter pollutants and provide habitat for hermit crab and young flounder. Further in, brackish waters provide habitat for young fish, blue crab and shellfish, which are food sources for whooping cranes and herons. Further in, the freshwater marshes begin which provide habitat for alligators, turtles, frogs, snakes and other species. Further inland are oak woodlands, oak savannahs and sandy prairie. 
          The Tatton Unit is 7,568 acres and is on the upper west side of Saint Charles Bay and connects with the Aransas Unit at a strip of land that separates the upper portion of Saint Charles Bay from Burgentine Lake. 
        The Lamar Unit is 979 acres, isolated by itself, about half way down the Lamar Peninsula opposite the Blackjack Peninsula on Saint Charles Bay. 
        The Myrtle Foester Whitmire Unit is 3,440 acres and located quite a bit northeast of the Aransas Unit and north of the northeastern end of Matagorda Island, just north of Powderhorn Lake on the west side of Matagorda Bay. 

We spent a morning in the main Aransas Unit and drove the 16 mile long Auto Tour Loop, including a stop at the Observation Tower that provides a great view of the wetlands below and San Antonio Bay. I also hiked the 1.4 mile roundtrip Heron Flats Trail. 

In the afternoon we took the three hour Whooping Crane and Coastal Birding Tour with Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures out of Rockport, Texas. We boated across Aransas Bay into the dredged shipping channel between Bludworth Island on the east and the peninsula which forms the eastern barrier for Dunham Bay. We saw 30 whooping cranes on our tour. 

I provide photos of some of the wildlife we saw in our day there: 
Whooping cranes seen from the Heron Flats Trail. 

Alligators seen in and near fresh water along the Heron Flats Trail. 

Sandhill cranes flying over and other birds seen along the Heron Flats Trail. 

American white pelicans. 

A blurry photo of a female bufflehead duck. 

Neotropic cormorant

Great blue heron

Great egret

Lesser scaup ducks

Redhead duck - back left center. The first one I've ever seen. 

Ring-necked duck

Snowy egret

Tricolored herons

Juvenile little blue heron

An osprey. Our guide later in the day said that since the DDT crisis years ago ospreys don't nest along the coast, they migrate down from the north. 

Rio Grande wild turkeys - when we first entered the wildlife refuge. 

Turkey vultures - flying around the observation tower. 

An eastern phoebe - a first for me. Along the Auto Tour Drive. 

After leaving the refuge gate (not sure if on refuge land or not), saw this beautiful crested caracara. 

On our boat tour, out in the dredged shipping channel, an American oystercatcher - a first for me. Beautiful bird. 

Two whooping cranes on Bludworth Island. We watched them quite awhile. 

Then they flew and we got to see the black on their wings. 

A ring-billed gull and...

...several laughing gulls in the shipping channel. 

A whooping crane family, including our first juvenile with a rusty brown head and blotched body. 

We got to see the juvenile in flight. 

A couple of whoopers flying overhead that caused the previous family to scatter. Our guide told us that whoopers are very territorial and combative. 

We saw a number of great blue herons on the islands along the shipping channel. 

Some male buffleheads at quite a distance, between islands. 

Two whoopers...

...whooping it up...

...then set to flight. 

We watched this whooper couple quite awhile. 

One of the whoopers caught a large waterbug or crab. 

A reddish heron, seemingly oblivious to the whoopers, cavorted around in the background. 

However, nature set the best for last. We saw this whooper family and watched it a long time. They got closer and closer to the boat to the point that they were only about 20 yards from us. 

By far our best view of the whoopers. In fact the captain of the boat said that in all of his years doing this, it was one of the best viewing opportunities they've ever had. We stayed a little long because even the jaded captain was taken with the closeness of these beautiful birds. 

We watched them eat red berries.

and interact with each other. 

I took over 700 photos of whoopers on this boat ride. It was quite the experience.
Aransas NWR is quite the place. I would love to go back again at a different time of year and take another bird watching tour. 

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