In the Year of Festivals, Texas Monthly writers gamely join community celebrations across the state. Bring on the pageants, cook-offs, and parades!

I’m leaning on the rail of the Scat Cat, a red-and-white, 78-person fishing boat in Aransas Bay, when two bottlenose dolphins leap majestically out of the water alongside our wake. The midday sun gleams on their fins as the pair chases us, jumping and diving in what looks like a playful game of leapfrog. “Look!” I shout, unable to contain my excitement at seeing them so close. A few of my sixty or so fellow passengers turn to watch, but only for a moment. Our guide for the day, Isidro Montemayor Jr., has just spotted something that this crowd finds far more compelling. “Reddish egret at two o’clock,” he proclaims, lifting his binoculars. “And we’ve got another Forster’s tern flying by, too.” Dolphins forgotten, we raise our eyes to the sky.

As the egret swoops low over us, camera shutters click and someone murmurs, “Ooh, that’s a lifer.” For birders, spotting a lifer—a species you’ve never seen before and can now add to your life list—is a thrilling moment, and one that will happen many times on our five-hour boat tour through the bay north of Port Aransas. In the twenty or so minutes since our boat motored out of the wharf, we’ve already seen more than a dozen kinds of shorebirds. But the plethora of pelicans, herons, and gulls is only a warm-up for the real stars of the show. We’ve all traveled here, from across Texas and several other states, for the whooping cranes.

Today’s tour is part of the Whooping Crane Festival, an annual four-day celebration in late February of North America’s tallest bird, also one of the continent’s rarest and most charismatic avian species. About two thousand birders have descended on Port Aransas—a seaside town of 3,100 people on Mustang Island, forty miles northeast of Corpus Christi—for the twenty-seventh iteration, which is packed with more than fifty events, including guided birding tours on foot and by bus as well as at sea, and numerous lectures by scientists about the ongoing efforts to protect one of Texas’s most beloved animals.

That whooping cranes are still here at all is highly improbable. They are one of the most celebrated comeback stories in conservation history. Before the arrival of European settlers, more than ten thousand of these birds soared across the continent, but habitat destruction and overhunting soon drove them to the brink. Their size made them easy targets for hunters, who prized them for their meat and the feathers, sold to adorn ladies’ hats. By 1941, the Texas population had dipped to an alarming low of fifteen.

Today, after decades of extensive conservation work, there are about 700 wild whoopers (plus about 130 in seven captive breeding programs, including a relatively new one run by the Dallas Zoo). The 540 or so now wintering along the Gulf Coast—including on the protected, food-rich waters of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where our boat is headed—have flown an incredible 2,500 miles from their nesting grounds in western Canada. After arriving in Texas between November and January, they gorge themselves on blue crabs, other crustaceans, fish, and red wolfberries, teaching their young to do the same and gathering strength for the long journey home in late March or early April. These massive birds often reach five feet (“That’s taller than me,” remarked a ten-year-old birder I met at the festival) and can weigh as much as seventeen pounds. Their caloric needs are, accordingly, prodigious. “One of these guys can eat up to eighty blue crabs in a day,” Joan Garland, coastal training program coordinator at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, tells us on our boat tour. “And they grow very, very quickly. A whooping crane chick grows about an inch a day.”

Whooping cranes mate for life, performing elaborate courtship dances and aerial combat between territorial males, and they travel in close-knit family groups. Unlike the only other crane species in North America, the smaller and more numerous sandhill crane, whoopers don’t gather in large flocks. Seeing one is an intimate, one-on-one experience, very different from marveling at a flock of thousands of sandhills, but, I’m told, equally awe-inspiring. I can only hope I’ll be so lucky.

The birds fascinate me, but over my three days at the festival, I find myself just as intrigued by the craniacs, as crane enthusiasts are called, and the niche industry that has sprung up around their hobby. The festival is a boon to Port Aransas’s tourist economy, with the two thousand or so visiting birders (plus their friends and relatives) spending generously on vacation rentals, tours, and restaurant meals. “We estimate the economic impact to be near $1 million,” says Brett Stawar, president and CEO of the Port Aransas Tourism Bureau & Chamber of Commerce.

Inside a bustling trade show at the Port Aransas Civic Center, attendees in gray festival T-shirts browse booths with vendors selling watercolor crane art prints, silver crane earrings, hand-sewn felt crane slippers, and tiny crane figurines crafted from hundreds of glass beads strung on wire. Birders can also drop serious cash on gear. At the booth for the high-end binocular and scopes company Swarovski Optik, field tech Vicki Simon tells me about the NL Pure, “the last binoculars you’ll ever need,” which retails for more than $3,500; as of the second morning, on Friday, she had already made three sales. At the next booth, Chip Clouse, who traveled from Golden, Colorado, to represent Opticron, is selling more moderately priced binos and scopes, including some with advanced image-stabilization technology, which he calls “a game changer for anyone who’s got a tremor,” such as older birders or those with a disability. The crowd at the festival did skew older, a birding-wide demographic that a viral joke once poked fun at: “As you age, it’s ridiculous how fast bird-watching creeps up on you. You spend your whole life being 100% indifferent to birds, and then one day you’re like ‘damn is that a yellow-rumped warbler.’ ”

That stereotype is changing, though. Birding surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a younger and more diverse crowd joining in. (That interest appears to be sustained: last year, birders who are Black, Native American, and South Asian all published books about their experiences in a hobby that hasn’t always been inclusive.) One of many young birders I meet at the festival is Devon Rieth, a 32-year-old construction buyer from San Antonio. “My wife bought me binoculars two years ago, but I got serious last fall,” he says. Now he’s a regular at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, not far from his home, and he scours eBird for the latest sightings in his area. Before the festival, he’d added 81 species to his life list so far in 2024. Rieth seems thrilled about the prospect of glimpsing a whooping crane: “I’m so hyped.” (He pronounces the bird’s name as “whupping,” rather than “whooping,” as do about half of the birders I meet. Both variants are acceptable, with the former being more popular among those with a Texas twang.)

Later, I chat with Ren Pigott, thirty, who works as a speech-language pathologist in Austin and started birding at age eight with her grandmother. She found out about the Whooping Crane Festival after attending last year’s Birdiest Festival in America, in nearby Corpus Christi, and traveled with her boyfriend, who doesn’t share her interest but agreed to tag along. For her, the hobby is less about chasing any particular species than having a reason to be in nature. “During the pandemic, I was working in travel health care, and it was stressful. I was like, ‘Where can I go to just be outside all the time?’ Birding is a way to do that.”

The undisputed king of the craniacs is George Archibald, the 77-year-old cofounder of the International Crane Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that funds conservation efforts in more than fifty countries, in part by hosting guided trips for birders. The group also helped start the festival in 1996. Archibald, who has probably spent more time with cranes than anyone alive, is such a celebrity in the birding world that everyone I meet refers to him on a first-name basis, like with Beyoncé: “I went to Bhutan to see cranes with George,” and “You have to meet George.” His schedule (including a sold-out book signing and lecture) was so hectic at the festival that I did not, in fact, get to meet him, but we spoke on the phone beforehand. He explained why cranes, as a group, are so rare and vulnerable. Eleven of the world’s fifteen crane species are threatened or endangered, and the whooping crane is the least numerous of all. “Cranes are very large birds, and they require a great deal of space,” Archibald said. “Each species selects a different type of wetland or grassland.” Unfortunately, those are some of the most easily destroyed habitats: with no trees to cut down, developers can simply pave them over. When Archibald started the crane foundation, in 1973, only about seventy whooping cranes existed. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act that same year, establishing landmark protections that helped bring back whoopers and other beloved but imperiled critters, such as the American alligator and the bald eagle. “It’s been a very difficult struggle” to revive crane populations over his fifty-year career, Archibald says, “but also very rewarding.”

Captive breeding has played a crucial role in the species’ comeback, though it’s extremely time-intensive, difficult work. During several spring breeding seasons in the late seventies and early eighties, Archibald famously lived and danced with a female whooping crane named Tex (after the San Antonio Zoo, where she hatched), at the ICF headquarters, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Scientists had repeatedly tried to pair Tex with male cranes, but the bird, which had imprinted on the zoo director as a hatchling raised in his home, spurned them, instead preferring only the mild-mannered, bespectacled Archibald. He wanted to prove that Tex could lay an egg, even an unfertilized one. To do that, she needed to be in an amorous mood. So Archibald bonded with her the way a male crane would. He slept, ate, and worked alongside Tex in an unheated wooden shed, with chicken wire dividing his half of the enclosure from the bird’s. “We often did the courtship dance, and while I worked at my desk she stood nearby preening,” he writes in his memoir, My Life With Cranes. “When she wanted me to follow her, she elevated her beak . . . and emitted a soft purr. I followed her, and the walk often turned into a dance.”

The whooping crane courtship dance is complex, with both dancers alternately tossing twigs, leaping skyward, running back and forth, and flapping their wings—or arms, in Archibald’s case. When a crane is aroused, the crimson patch of bare skin on its head expands (it shrinks when it’s afraid). That’s just one of many ways it communicates, along with the sixteen distinct, striking vocal calls that lend the species its name. When a crane calls, the sound is known as bugling, for the loud, brassy noise that recalls the blast of a trumpet. Archibald can instantly identify all sixteen calls, from the gentle purr that means “I love you—walk with me” to a blaring alarm that signifies, “There’s a threat—let’s get out of here.”

Whooping Cranes Are Back From the Brink. A Port Aransas Festival Celebrates North America’s Tallest Bird.
George Archibald. Courtesy of International Crane Foundation
Whooping Cranes Are Back From the Brink. A Port Aransas Festival Celebrates North America’s Tallest Bird.
The whooping cranes’ courtship dance. Naturepassion/Alamy
Left: George Archibald. Courtesy of International Crane Foundation
Top: The whooping cranes’ courtship dance. Naturepassion/Alamy

Archibald’s work with Tex paid off when she laid an egg in 1977. This led to a successful effort to artificially inseminate the egg. She laid several eggs, but only one made it to adulthood: Gee Whiz, who eventually fathered his own hatchlings and carried on the line. Whooping cranes can live for twenty to thirty years. Not long ago, Archibald met one of Gee Whiz’s offspring nesting on a wetland in Wisconsin. Meeting “his” granddaughter, he writes, was “one of my greatest pleasures.”

Recently, the Dallas Zoo has picked up the baton, as one of seven groups in the U.S. and Canada to carry on Archibald’s legacy of breeding baby cranes to release in the wild. (The San Antonio Zoo also has a small but long-running program that has hatched sixteen chicks since 1956.) In 2018, the Dallas Zoo began building the Whooping Crane Center of Texas, a secluded, state-of-the-art facility at Samuell Farm, in Mesquite, and last November, the first chick successfully raised there was released in Louisiana. Unlike with Tex, great care is taken to ensure these cranes never imprint on humans; the only time they see a person is during veterinary checkups, when zookeepers obscure their faces under hats with dark screens.

During a presentation on the festival’s final day, Chris Corpus, the zoo’s director of conservation, clicks through family photos of mom Juniper, dad Huckleberry, and baby Leviathan strolling together through the secluded wetland at the crane center. The audience coos at the adorable pictures of the fuzzy, cinnamon-colored chick learning to fish and forage, preening his feathers, and growing into his gangly legs. “I get a little emotional looking at these pictures,” Corpus tells the crowd. After five years of work and more than $1 million spent to get the center up and running, Leviathan is now “living the good life” in the swamps of Louisiana. The zookeepers hope another chick will hatch later this year.

Back on the boat tour, the density and variety of birds increases steadily as the catamaran glides deeper into the salt marshes of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. I’m trying to interview our leader, Montemayor, a 34-year-old who runs his own freelance bird-guiding business from his hometown of La Paloma, in the Rio Grande Valley, but we keep getting interrupted by the nonstop sightings he must announce to the group. “I’ve been guiding since 2019, so six years or so,” he says. “Next festival I’m working after this is the Spring Chirp—we have a tern flying by, another Forster’s tern at two o’clock—and that’s back home in the Valley—okay, now I see egrets and a flock of American white pelicans.” I stop talking and just watch him work, astounded by the speed and skill with which he makes identifications. What looks to me like a tiny pink dot appears far away, partially obscured by a patch of tall grass. Instantly, and without binoculars, Montemayor names it: “That’s a roseate spoonbill.”

He keeps up this patter more or less nonstop for the almost five hours of our tour, identifying forty species in all and writing each name with a pen in a little black notebook. This is just one of five tours he’ll work this weekend. And guess what he’s planning to do after we get back to the dock and he finally has a little free time? “I might go birding,” Montemayor says with a slight smile. “Or I might go fishing, actually. But even when I’m fishing, I’m birding.”

Then, the moment we’ve been waiting for arrives: our first whooping crane sighting. Three, actually: a family, with two tall, black and white parents and a tawny teenager between them. The captain turns off the boat’s engine and silently steers us closer as everyone rushes to the starboard side, a hush descending over the group. I lift my binoculars and follow the family as they stalk through the marsh. Their movements are deliberate, regal, and severe, a march of impossibly tall, thin, chopsticklike black legs propping up snowy white feathers, so bright in the sun that it almost hurts to look at them. They are otherworldly, and it’s not hard to see why for millennia, folklore in Asia, where cranes are most common, has linked them with the mystical and the divine. “These elegant birds, in their stature, grace, and beauty, their wild, fierce temperament, are striking metaphors for the vanishing wilderness,” writes naturalist Peter Matthiessen in his ode to cranes, The Birds of Heaven.

After we admire them for a while, the boat glides on, and only a few minutes later, we come upon another trio of whooping cranes walking through the tall grass. Watching the juvenile speed ahead of his parents, with an occasional glance back to make sure they’re still close, I can’t help but think of my toddler son. When we’re walking to the park and he’s eager to get to the playground, he rushes ahead of us in exactly the same way. More than any other birds, cranes “summon our attention to our own swift passage on this precious earth,” writes Matthiessen.

Now they depend on our intensive efforts to keep them alive. Above the cranes, a huge plume of gray smoke drifts into the sky; in the distance, I can just see orange flames flickering through the grass. While the sight may seem alarming, it’s actually good news. This is a prescribed burn that will clear away mesquite and other nuisance plants that crowd the coastal prairie. Today’s fire will make it easier for cranes and other vulnerable birds that winter in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see their prey. The cranes seem unfazed by the smoke, each bird bending to its daily work of mucking through the mud with razor-sharp beaks, searching for crabs, fish, and small invertebrates, before lifting their long necks to gaze back at us. Montemayor tallies each sighting in his notebook. By the tour’s end, we have seen 46 cranes, or about 7 percent of all wild whooping cranes that remain on the earth. Here’s hoping that next year there will be more.