Tourists flock from all over to see whooping cranes at Aransas
By Dianna Wray
Dec. 25, 2010 at 6:25 a.m.
AUSTWELL - Tom LaDuke and Jill Pruetz stood at the top of the observation deck, peering out across the water through binoculars at two white shapes standing at the edge of a distant marsh.
"That's them. Can you see them?" LaDuke asked, gesturing with his binoculars.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is a federal park far off the beaten path just outside of the small town of Austwell.
You have to drive down twisting, turning roads, passing through towns time seems to have forgotten and stray farther from gas stations than most people like to get to the gates of the park.
Every year, more than 70,000 people make the trip. Some are there for the scenery; most are looking for the whooping cranes.
LaDuke and Pruetz have come to spend the Christmas holidays with Pruetz's parents in Yoakum. LaDuke came from Pennsylvania and Pruetz from Iowa.
The pair took advantage of their one free day in Texas to make the trek from Yoakum down to Aransas to see what everyone else comes there to see during this time of year - the whooping cranes.
Aransas is the winter home of the last naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in the United States.
They're one of the rarest species of birds in America and, with the average bird measuring just below 5 feet tall, one of the tallest.
The birds mate for life and travel alone, in couples or small family units. The flock has been migrating between Aransas and Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada since the Ice Ages.
In 1941, only 15 members of the flock remained. During the ensuing decades, the whooping cranes at Aransas have become one of the endangered species success stories.
This year, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge whooping crane coordinator Tom Stehn said they are seeing the largest flock on record, expecting as many as 285 birds to reach Texas over the course of the season.
"This really is one of the pre-eminent places for birding," LaDuke said, gazing around appreciatively from the observation deck.
Ohio natives Kim and Ralph Rehchamp agreed.
"It's the middle of nowhere, but it's something different that you can't see anywhere else," Kim Rehchamp said while her husband studied a park map.
The federal park charges a nominal fee to guests - it costs $3 for one person to enter the park and $5 for a car of people - because, more than anything, park employees want people there, learning about nature, learning about the cranes.
Aransas gets visitors from all over the world, educational program director Tonya Nix said.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Outdoor Recreational Planner Bernice Jackson agreed.
"The support of our visitors is essential to the refuge," Jackson said. While visitors pay only a nominal fee on entering the park, Jackson said they learn to appreciate the refuge and the wildlife it protects by visiting.
"Folks bring their kids and grandkids. This is a legacy that the American people leave to their children and grandchildren," Jackson said.