International Crane Foundation loses office after hurricane

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Sept. 12, 2017 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Sept. 12, 2017 at 10:54 p.m.

Verba Hiberd, a volunteer at Wings Rescue Center, holds a pigeon. The bird rehabilitation sustained roof and tree damage from the hurricane.

Verba Hiberd, a volunteer at Wings Rescue Center, holds a pigeon. The bird rehabilitation sustained roof and tree damage from the hurricane.   Ana Ramirez for The Victoria Advocate

ROCKPORT - When they removed the interior walls of their office Tuesday, the International Crane Foundation's employees found more than they could have hoped for among the rubble.

"We went from 1,000 square feet to 100, but it's all good stuff," said Liz Smith, senior whooping crane scientist.

She surveyed their findings laid out on a blue tarp. The game cameras and tripods would be useful, as would the waterproof notebooks that had lived up to their name.

More than two weeks after a Category 4 hurricane devastated the area, birders are trying to get back to birding.

And the foundation is treating the loss of its office near the Aransas County Airport less like a setback and more like a scientific opportunity.

Started in Baraboo, Wis., in 1979, the foundation has only been in Texas year-round for seven years.

In that time, Smith has worked with volunteers to study and support the last naturally occurring flock of whooping cranes.

Right now, the whooping cranes are in Canada, but they will begin migrating to Texas next month.

"If anything, this has strengthened our resolve," said Tim Grunewald, the foundation's North American program director.

He said Smith must get out on the foundation's 21-foot shallow draft boat soon.

Then, she'll study the salinity of the bays the whooping cranes forage on as well as whether their habitat has eroded. Changes could force the cranes into new habitat. If they land on privately-owned property, that will make the foundation's educational outreach on the endangered species even more important, he said.

And the foundation still plans to spread its wings as a record 63 fledglings might migrate to Texas.

The foundation is hiring an ecosystem scientist, a field assistant and an outreach coordinator to work with Smith in Texas.

"We're going to need a bigger space for four people, and hopefully it will be in this vicinity and up and running by the time the birds get here," Grunewald said.

Tom Davis, the foundation's senior facilities manager from Wisconsin, said Tuesday's was the biggest task he's ever overseen.

He volunteered to drive to Texas for the first time to get Smith ready for the whooping cranes.

"We have to deal with the cold winters and tornadoes every once in a while, but I've never seen anything like this," Davis said, wiping tears from his eyes. "You drive down the road, and people's whole lives are stacked 8 feet tall ... and they keep going. But I guess that's the spirit of Texas, right?"

Davis unearthed paintings Smith had brought to spruce up her now ruined office.

But they were more than just decorations.

Some were painted by her husband Dave, who died of heart failure four years ago.

The couple shared a love of art and science during their 30-year marriage.

Dave Smith knew both subjects go hand in hand, a conclusion his wife struggled to come to on her own as a college student who switched her major at least three times.

"That's why this is so special," Smith said, scrapping mud off of his acrylic pieces.

Farther south on SH 35, the Rockport-Fulton Wings Rescue Center also was getting back to birding.

Two volunteers cleaned cages and fed the injured winged creatures they had sheltered during the storm.

Jack, a one-eyed sparrow, perched on one of their fingers.

"Honestly, we never thought it was going to be this bad," the vice president of the nonprofit, Rachael Diaz, said about the hurricane later in the day. "That's really why I left them. Otherwise, I would have taken them or found places to put them."

Diaz evacuated to Sinton. When she drove the 35 miles back to the nonprofit, she was elated that a dove, stilt, tern and white ibis had survived inside.

The nonprofit moved to its own place on West Third Street in Rockport in June and has taken in about 70 injured birds since then. It works to rehabilitate and then release them.

Its place on West Third Street sustained only minor roof damage from the hurricane. What it really needs now is volunteers, said Diaz, who works as an insurance agent.

"Unfortunately, I can't spend all of my time over there," she said.

And she wasn't joking.

Anyone can volunteer, too.

"They just have to have a heart to do it. We'll train you," Diaz said.

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