Whooping it Up in Port Aransas, Texas Gulf Coast

Whooping cranes feeding in the marshes in Port Aransas Texas. Sharon Kurtz photos.
Whooping cranes feeding in the marshes in Port Aransas Texas. Sharon Kurtz photos.

Port Aransas: The Winter Mecca for Whooping Cranes

By Sharon Kurtz
Senior Travel Writer

Dr. Joan and Scott Holt on the Nature Preserve Walking Tour
Dr. Joan and Scott Holt on the Nature Preserve Walking Tour

In the cool mist of early morning in Port Aransas, Texas, I found myself aboard a catamaran fishing boat departing Fisherman’s Wharf in search of whooping cranes.

As the boat navigated into the protected waters of the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, everyone lined the rail, eager for a rare glimpse.

It wasn’t long before we were rewarded with a view of a family group of these giant majestic birds, gracefully wading through the marshy wetlands in pursuit of their favored delicacy, blue crabs.

Awe-Inspiring Huge Birds

Holding my breath, I peered through my binoculars, marveling at the sight of North America’s largest migratory birds—a truly awe-inspiring experience.

When you think of Port Aransas, you might imagine a lively Spring Break beach destination for Texas teens or a guy’s getaway fishing trip on the Gulf Coast to catch tarpon and redfish. However, there is much more to this coastal town than its seasonal popularity. Port Aransas is a year-round haven where time slows down and locals are welcoming.

Birders at Leonabelle Turbull Birding Center.
Birders at Leonabelle Turbull Birding Center.

For over 30 years, our roots were firmly planted in North Texas, and the Texas Gulf Coast rarely made it onto our travel radar—blame it on the daunting 6 to 7-hour drive. However, the Gulf Coast has taken on a newfound charm since our move to Austin.

The discovery of the endangered Whooping Cranes and the enticing February Whooping Crane Festival completely shifted my perspective on that coastal journey. With the added excitement of having our extended family on board for a multi-generation adventure, we wasted no time and set the wheels in motion.

History of Port Aransas

Horace Caldwell Pier. Photo Courtesy of Port Aransas Tourism Bureau
Horace Caldwell Pier. Port Aransas Tourism Bureau photo.

Situated on the northern tip of Mustang Island and the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, this fishing mecca unfolds as a coastal sanctuary with small-town charm and abundant activities.

Eighteen miles of pristine beaches, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and encounters with diverse wildlife define this haven.

Dolphins gracefully navigate the waters, sea turtles find refuge, and migrating birds paint a kaleidoscope of nature’s beauty.

Recognized as the Fishing Capital of Texas, Port Aransas lures anglers with abundant fish populations.

The annual Deep-Sea Roundup, held since 1932, attracts anglers from far and wide. Charter fishing, marinas, and the historic Horace Caldwell Pier contribute to the town’s fishing charm.

You Can Call it Port A

Port Aransas, affectionately known as Port A, evokes a nostalgic sense of bygone coastal getaways reminiscent of carefree days when life moved at a slower pace. It conjures images of family outings for an evening ice cream cone, beach walk discoveries, weeny roasts over a wood fire on the sand, and reveling in the simple joys when life seemed less complicated.

Catching rays on the ferry boat.
Catching rays on the ferry boat.

Its history is intertwined with pirates and shipwrecks. Legend has it that the pirate Jean Lafitte used nearby Mustang Island as a base for his smuggling activities in the early 1800s.

The treacherous waters off the coast of Port Aransas have also witnessed numerous shipwrecks, leading to tales of hidden treasures.

Whooping Crane Conservation Efforts

Renowned for their striking white plumage and impressive wingspan, these birds are among the world’s largest migratory species. Originating in Northern Canada, their awe-inspiring journey spans thousands of miles, captivating bird enthusiasts and the hearts of conservationists.

Undertaking one of the longest migrations of any bird species, the giant birds travel approximately 2,500 miles from their summer breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park to the Gulf Coast of Texas. They follow a specific migration route known as the Central Flyway, which takes them through the heart of North America.

Hector Rios with Coastal Bend Kayak Tours. Photo by Sharon Kurtz
Hector Rios with Coastal Bend Kayak Tours. Sharon Kurtz photo

Whooping Cranes have a 7- to 8-foot wingspan, stands up to 5 feet tall, and their  distinct trumpet-like call reaches distances of up to two miles.

The Whooping Cranes faced a critical decline as an endangered species, having dwindled to only 15 individuals in 1941. However, stringent conservation measures have led to a notable rebound, with their numbers now surpassing 500 in the Gulf Coast area.

With lifespans of up to 30 years in the wild, these birds form lifelong bonds with their mates. Mustang Island serves as a crucial wintering respite, providing nourishment from its coastal marshes before their return north.

Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival

Port Aransas becomes a haven for nature lovers during the Whooping Crane Festival every February. Since 1996, this four-day celebration has immersed attendees in the world of these remarkable birds. The festival highlights the town’s vital role in the migratory journey with presentations, workshops, and bird watching tours that provide glimpses of the cranes in their natural habitat.

Bollard Buddies on I.B. Magee Beach Photo Courtesy of Port Aransas Tourism Bureau
Bollard Buddies on I.B. Magee Beach Port Aransas Tourism Bureau photo.

The local Civic Center hosts a bustling trade show with booths featuring photographers selling their prints, camera and binocular gear, gifts, jewelry, and anything that piques the interest of bird watchers.

As I rounded a corner among the booths, I was stopped by a girl wearing a cloth pair of giant whooping crane wings, showcasing their impressive size. In the Dallas Zoo booth, Karen shared that the costume helps visitors understand the scale; “when you see them through binoculars in the wild, it’s hard to grasp how big they really are.”

Whooping Crane Feeding.
Whooping Crane Feeding.

The Dallas Zoo plays an active role in whooping crane conservation through partnerships with the Whooping Crane Center of Texas and the Whooping Crane Foundation.

Their involvement includes incubating whooping crane eggs and utilizing cranes as foster parents for the chicks. The Zoo provides a specialized aviary environment for the cranes, guiding their development until they reach functional adulthood.

Ultimately, these cranes are released into the wild, contributing to the preservation and restoration of the whooping crane population.

Bonfire on the beach Mustang Island Port Aransas Texas.
Bonfire on the beach.

A Birder’s Paradise

Having secured a ticket to the Birding at the Nature Preserve Walking Tour, I joined a group of birding nerds led by renowned community pillars, birders, and conservationists Dr. Joan and Scott Holt. Bird sights were rare that morning in the reserve, so we visited the nearby Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center instead.

Scott led us down a 700-foot boardwalk to a shaded observation tower granting us with expansive views of the freshwater marsh fed by the Nueces County Water District sewage treatment plant. Scott gave us a good tip: “Always head to the sewage treatment plant for the best bird sightings…the treated water released into ponds are rich in nutrients that the birds love.” He didn’t comment on the smell wafting from the treatment plant.

Sunset from Leonabelle Turbull Birding Center.
Sunset from Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center.

Birds wheeled and swooped through the cloudless sky. The air was alive with ducks, pelicans, wading birds, and shorebirds. Perched on the observation platform with binoculars draped around our necks, Dr. Joan expertly identified a variety of waterfowl, from the iconic Roseate Spoonbills, the symbol of Port Aransas, to grebes, herons, egrets, and cormorants.

An American alligator named Boots hangs out under the boardwalk. He’s been around for more than 50 years and is a real crowd-pleaser. He spends most of his time lazing in the sun or partially submerged, his massive head and eyes peeking out of the water.

Joan shared that “Scott and I met at Texas A&M while doing graduate work. We came here in 1975 to work at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. So, we’re both fishery scientists, but we have birded all our lives.”

“We love it here because there are so many birds; the Roseate Spoonbill is my favorite. We’ve helped develop many of these birding centers and nature areas, and the Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond is named after us. My favorite time of year is winter when the tourists leave, and Port A becomes a quiet, close-knit community.”

When asked if there is a big emphasis on conservation, she said, “Yes, but it should be bigger. I was on the city council for six years and tried hard to get more funds, but day-to-day issues come up more than looking into the future”.

Port Aransas UT Marine Science KarissaRangel 0616Conservation Hubs: Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Coastal Initiatives

Established in 1937 to protect the critically endangered Whooping Crane population, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge spans 115,000 acres along the Gulf Coast.

Home to diverse wildlife, including alligators, bobcats, and deer, the Refuge is the wintering grounds for around 400 whooping cranes during migration.

Walking the beach on Mustang Island in Texas.
Walking the beach on Mustang Island in Texas.

A hotspot for birdwatching, the Refuge contributes significantly to conservation, education, and research.

The University of Texas Marine Science Institute contributes to coastal environment conservation. The Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) rehabilitates marine turtles and birds, playing a crucial role in preserving the coastal ecosystem.

Mustang Island Beaches

Port Aransas beaches span 18 miles and invite visitors to bask in powdery sand and inviting waters. I was amazed at the beauty and serenity of the beaches and water – not what I had expected at all. Walking the beaches was like going back in time to when people smiled, said hello, and even stopped to visit. My husband enjoyed meeting a couple from near his hometown in southern Illinois, where they shared that “coming to Port Aransas every year was an annual 2-month event.”

Unique attractions, like the annual  Sand Fest in April, showcase artists’ creativity through intricate sandy masterpieces. At I.B. Magee Jr. Beach Park, the whimsical Bollard Buddies add a playful touch to the coastal landscape. Each yarn wrapped wooden post is a unique work of art created by local volunteers, reflecting the community’s spirit and creativity.

The Horace Caldwell Pier is a real showstopper, extending into the Gulf and offering not only a scenic vantage point but also serving as a prime fishing spot. Anglers can cast their lines into the Gulf waters, hoping for a rewarding catch. I look forward to a return visit and catch the sunset from this spectacular spot.

wharfHighlights at the Whooping Crane Festival

During the 1.5-hour journey to the refuge to spot the Whooping Cranes, we took advantage of guides knowledge of the birds, and the area. Marine biologist Scott Holt, a devoted supporter of the Whooping Crane Festival, shared invaluable insights during the journey.

As a festival veteran since its inception, Holt highlighted the unique approach of the event. There are bird festivals nationwide, but ours caters to all birding watchers, making it less intense and more enjoyable.”

The festival initially had roots in Rockport for a few years before its relocation. Reflecting on the transition, Holt, initially skeptical, admitted, “I thought they were crazy for organizing a festival. Don’t ask me to lead it, but I was more than willing to assist.” The International Crane Foundation later entrusted the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce with the Festival’s organization. Holt and his wife played pivotal roles in its early development.

Attending her third Festival, Wildlife Conservation Photographer Jennifer Leigh Warner has been capturing images of whooping cranes since 2017. Working with the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) as the Ethics Committee Chair, she educates on the importance of minimizing impact on species and habitats. An advocate for conservation, she points to the significance of the whooping cranes success story, as their population has risen from 15 in 1941 to more than 800.

IMG 7369

IMG 7205If you are up for a little paddling, I really recommend a kayaking adventure with Coastal Bend Kayak Tours. We joined 20 enthusiasts on the Lighthouse Lakes Trail for an early morning outing.

After paddling instructions and gearing up with life jackets, we navigated through narrow, watery inlets, spotting Kingfishers and marveling as brown pelicans swooped inches above the water. Hector Rios shared his story:

“I came down here on spring break 21 years ago, blew the motor on my car, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Emphasizing conservation efforts, Rios discussed the efforts to resurrect oyster beds and stressed the importance of preserving ecosystems. He pointed out the vulnerability of black mangrove forests, devastated by a cold spell two years ago and still very fragile.

“Kayaking these waterways is unlike being on a powerboat. It lets you get up close and personal with the environment, revealing things you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Our kayak tour aimed for the historic Aransas Pass Lighthouse, but tidal conditions foiled our plans. But not to worry, we were still able to get a close-up view of the lighthouse when enjoying a sunset cruise that evening.  The over-100-year-old landmark, Lydia Ann Lighthouse, dating back to the Civil War, guided ships through Aransas Pass between Mustang Island and the mainland. Constructed in 1852-1853, it played a vital role in aiding access to the Port of Corpus Christi with its 12-mile range.

On the cruise we saw pelicans were diving in the water for their evening meal, while dolphins frolicked all around the boat. A nice way to end the day.

 The Port Aransas Tourism Bureau hosted my visit; however, all opinions are my own. Learn more about the annual Whooping Crane Festival and Port Aransas at Discover Port Aransas for accommodations, activities, and more information.

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