Love Birds

When it comes to lasting romance, we humans could learn a thing or two from the whooping cranes that winter on the Texas coast.

February 2002By Comments

I’LL NEVER EMBRACE VALENTINE’S Day, with its greeting-card sentiments about love, but after nearly eighteen years of marriage, I’ll concede that romance occasionally needs a nudge. With this in mind, I whisked my husband, Richard, to the harbor towns of Rockport and Fulton to let the salt air work its magic and, possibly, learn a little something about amore from those snow-white icons of eternal love who migrate to this stretch of the Texas coast each winter. No, I don’t mean RV devotees from the frozen North; I’m talking about whooping cranes, those North American natives that mate for life and dance together into old age.

Each year, the stately cranes glide 2,500 miles from their summer haven in northwestern Canada to the warm coastal waters around Aransas Bay. At last count, the Aransas population was 175 birds, sadly down from 188 in 1999. Still, this most endangered of all cranes has fought its way back from the brink of extinction: In 1941 only 21 remained in the wild. Currently, the population of both wild and captive whoopers hovers around 400.

We arrived in Rockport as dark clouds gathered and lightning cracked. As the rain began to fall, we checked into Hoopes' House, a Queen Anne-style home turned bed-and-breakfast that has stood sentinel here for more than a century. I'm usually leery of B&B's, having stayed at one too many where the proprietors think you're paying them to be your new best and nosiest friend. Nothing squelches romance faster for me than a chatty hostess flitting about adjusting doilies. But at this impeccably restored inn we enjoyed a plush and stylish second-floor room that was refreshingly free of ruffles and intruding innkeepers. (It even had its own thermostat, a luxury beyond compare in the B&B world.) From three large windows, we had a sidelong view of Rockport's harbor, perhaps the most picturesque on the Texas coast. I know, I know; considering eyesores like Freeport and Baytown, that's not saying much. But honestly, Rockport can hold its own against my TV-based notions of quaint New England ports. From our cozy perch, the inclement weather morphed into mood-enhancing atmosphere. (Love-nest alert: Try to reserve the Live Oak Room, which boasts claw-foot-tub-with-a-view appeal.)

By the next morning, the wind and rain had lost its allure. We had planned on boarding the MV Wharf Cat, a 31-foot catamaran that carries up to ninety whooper-crazed passengers on tours of the big birds' feeding grounds. I'd been on the Wharf Cat before and fondly remembered ornithologist Ray Little's witty, info-rich narrative. But I looked at the choppy waters of Aransas Bay and thought about spending four hours on the boat and decided that I was too attached to the enormous breakfast I'd eaten at the inn to say good-bye to it so soon. I've been seasick before, and as God is my witness, I'll never be seasick again.

In retrospect, I wish we had gone. Little told me later that no one had ever gotten sick in his fourteen years of narrating tours aboard the Wharf Cat. To add insult to injury, he said that this has been one of the best years yet; the whoopers are more active than ever, and he has spotted a wealth of other rarities, including a lesser black-backed gull and long-tailed ducks.

Happily for lily-livered landlubbers like me, there's an alternative to a seagoing tour: the stunningly beautiful Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 54,829-acre tract of coastland purchased by the feds in 1937. Whooping cranes aren't the only creatures who find sanctuary in its tidal flats and bays, oak thickets and cordgrass prairies. More than four hundred bird species have been spotted here, along with bobcats, coyotes, alligators, white-tailed deer, and javelinas. We climbed the ramp to the top of the refuge's forty-foot-tall observation tower and immediately spotted an adult whooper and a baby wading nonchalantly through the marsh grasses looking for snacks, oblivious to the great blue herons, pelicans, great egrets, and plovers sharing the territory. The adult was as regal as a five-foot-tall, dazzlingly white bird with a seven-foot wingspan should be. Despite its supermodel bearing, I found it hard to believe that these birds, even with their hollow bones, weigh a mere fifteen pounds. (Eat your heart out, Kate Moss.) But where was the other parent? Was this the secret of true love—plenty of personal space?

This out-of-the-way refuge welcomes more than 80,000 visitors a year, most of them when the whoopers are in residence, from mid-November through March, but on this soggy day we had the tower and its two high-powered telescopes to ourselves. Considering that the cranes attract $5 million to the local economy annually, it's no wonder Rockport and Fulton are completely smitten with the birds. Two 10-foot-tall bronze whoopers watch over a small harborside park in Rockport. And like a talisman for bountiful tourism, the image of the whooper graces signs, T-shirts, and menus at nearly every business in the area, from auto mechanics to seafood restaurants.

The charm worked on us. We decided to stay another night, this time in Fulton, and try our luck the next morning with a custom tour aboard a 24-foot Carolina skiff from Captain Sally's Reel Fun Charters. That evening we thumbed our noses at the Gods of Low Cholesterol, gorging on fried shrimp in the upstairs bar at Charlotte Plummer's overlooking the Fulton harbor, which is almost as Cape Cod-like as Rockport's but with a dash of Veracruz, courtesy of the rustling palms.

After dinner we waddled past a stand of the area's signature leaning oaks, bent almost double by the prevailing winds, to the Fulton Beach Bungalows half a mile away. After years of neglect, this forties motor court, tucked into a tranquil neighborhood, is undergoing a rebirth. Juli McCrary and Gene Schwinge, Jr., bought the property in 1998, and so far they've transformed five of the eight units from grim to funk-tabulous, thanks to new roofs, lots of paint, even more imagination, and possibly a liberal sprinkling of pixie dust. The cottages—all of which have screened porches, back patios, and kitchens—simply reek of personality, decked out with pink flamingos, coils of fat seagoing rope, and gaily painted vintage furniture.

In the morning the winds had died and the rains had stopped, but the fog was so thick I couldn't have seen a whooper if he'd stood on my shoe. Boat tour number two: canceled. Oh, well; we guessed we'd just have to sleep in . . .

After we got home I couldn't stop thinking about the single parent I had seen, so I contacted Tom Stehn, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and the U.S. whooping crane coordinator. He told me that fatalities—most likely caused by a collision with a power line during migration—explain the occasional single parent at Aransas. Then Stehn, who has observed the cranes for almost two decades, dropped a bombshell: "We have documented several breakups over the years." I was shocked. Does no love last forever? "But it's very rare," he assured me; the splits occur when a dominant male loses a mate to death and then horns in on a younger male's gal. And she has to go along with it?! "Oh, no," Stehn said, laughing. "There are no guarantees she'll fall for the dominant male. He has to do whatever it is cranes do to win her."

The mating habits of cranes notwithstanding, did this old married couple find romance among the bent oaks and sea breezes? Don't you think that's for us to know and for you and your sweetie to go find out for yourselves?

Crane spotting:

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 35 miles north of Rockport off Texas Highway 35; follow signs (361-286-3559; Open from dawn to dusk; $5 per car. Take mosquito repellent.

Captain Sally's Reel Fun Charters (361-729-9095; Tours leave from nearby Goose Island State Park; a four-hour tour for up to four people is $150.

MV Wharf Cat (361-729-4855, 800-782-2473). Four-hour narrated tours from Rockport Harbor Wednesday through Friday and Sundays at 10, Saturdays at 8 and 1; $30, children under 12 $20. Reservations recommended.

Where to stay:

Fulton Beach Bungalows, 130 Prairie Road, Fulton (361-790-9108, 830-931-3532; Cottages $85-$100 a night. No credit cards.

Hoopes' House, 417 North Broadway, Rockport (361-729-8424, 800-924-1008; Four rooms on the second floor of the main house and four rooms in a new wing by the pool; $120 a night, including a huge breakfast.

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