Whooping Cranes in Rockport

Rockport is a picturesque seaside town with quaint downtown shops and a working port filled with fishing boats. But the area’s biggest attraction is not a place – it’s a past time – birding.

Rockport provides seasonal respite to migratory birds including the regal whooping crane.  The largest North American bird, the whooping crane stands nearly five-foot, mates for life, and has fought its way back from the brink of extinction.

The Whooping Crane – Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Numbering just 16 wild whooping cranes in 1941, the bird faced extinction.  Extensive species management including captive breeding programs brought the bird back from the brink, though its numbers are still limited (about 250 wild and an equal number in managed breeding programs).  The only natural wild flock of whooping crane winter in and around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

North Texas Ramblings Whooping CraneThe best way to view the birds is by boat. Tours operate from Fulton Harbor, taking bird enthusiasts through bays, along the refuge’s shoreline and to Matagorda Island.   In addition to whooping crane, you’ll see osprey, heron, pelican, ibis, cormorant and shore birds. For an exceptional birding experience, try an outing on the Skimmer skippered by Tommy Moore. Moore knows his birds and their favorite places to ‘hang-out.’

Rockport – Shopping, Aquarium, and Science on a Sphere

Downtown Rockport sports a surprising number of art galleries, antique shops and boutiques. If you are looking for a unique wedding ring or anniversary gift, check out Sazon Studio and Galleries where artist Ruben Villareal-Aiken handcrafts jewelry inspired by his muse, the whooping crane. The gift shop 4 the Birds is your go-to spot to get the latest information on area bird watching, and the store houses nature photographer Diane Loyd’s Salt Flats Gallery.

The Aquarium at Rockport Harbor has a collection of native fish. This small aquarium is fun for all ages. Be sure to take time to chat with the aquarium volunteers, and say hello to the star attraction Marley, a leopard eel.  The aquarium is open Thursday – Monday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Also at Rockport Harbor, you’ll find the Bay Education Center. In addition to its estuary exhibit, the Bay Education Center houses a Science on a Sphere theater. This unique system, developed and fielded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, projects films about earth science onto a suspended sphere instead of movie screen. Bay Education Center is one of just 50 U.S. facilities to host Science on a Sphere. Films are Tuesday – Saturday at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Admission to the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor and Bay Education Center is free.

Lodging and Dining in Rockport

Miss Kitty’s Fishing Getaways and Vacation Rental by Owner are two online sites for a list of vacation property rentals available in the Rockport area. For a more traditional hotel experience, highly recommend the Lighthouse Inn at Fulton Harbor. The well-run hotel is affordable and ideally situated with bay view rooms.

Restaurants are peppered throughout the area. For a funky, no-frills seafood boil dinner, try the Boiling Pot; Latitude 28 02 offers fine dining in a beautiful art gallery setting; and Moon Dog has oysters and a view of the bay.


Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Snowbirds are on their way, flocking to Texas to escape northern winters. No, they are not the two-legged variety driving RV’s. These feathered visitors arrive by wing. Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, near the Texas and Oklahoma border, hosts up to 30,000 migratory birds October through February. Just west of Sherman, Hagerman North Texas Ramblings Hagerman National Wildlife Refugeprovides wetland habitat for thousands of Canada, snow and Ross geese each winter along with ducks, heron and songbirds.  Cormorant troll the waterways their long necks like submarine periscopes, great blue heron look like prehistoric pterodactyl against the sky, and thousands of snow geese honk a continuous serenade. In total, over 300 bird species call the refuge home. It’s a veritable birder’s paradise.

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge offers a four-mile, self-guided auto tour. Ideal for birders with limited mobility, the driving route gets you up close to thousands of birds without ever leaving the car. The best part, your parked car serves as an effective birding blind!

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge has recreational activities beyond birding. In addition to the driving route, the refuge has miles of hiking trails. You’ll find additional bird species along with many local animals like armadillo, rabbit, fox squirrel and the occasional coyote, bobcat and feral pig. Trails cover a variety of habitat from prairie to marsh to woodland. The Meadow Pond trail is along an unpaved service road that is an easy hike for families with small children. Enjoy a packed lunch at one of the many picnic areas scattered throughout the refuge.

The area’s history is as interesting as the migratory birds wintering at the refuge. Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is named for a town now under Lake Texoma. Founded in 1904, Hagerman boasted 250 residents, church, school and cotton gin.  In 1943, the Army Corps of Engineers built Denison Dam. The dam submerged the town and created one of the largest man made reservoirs in the United States. Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge was established shortly thereafter in 1946 in the area near the former town site.

The refuge is unique in other ways, too. Among flocks of geese, you find oilrigs. The grasshopper-styled rigs date from 1951 when oil was discovered in nearby Big Mineral Creek. While the Army Corps of Engineers bought the land for the Denison Dam project, they failed to purchase the mineral rights. As a result, privately owned and operated oilrigs have removed millions of gallons of oil and natural gas from the refuge.

So pack your lunch and head out for a winter hike to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. Don’t forget your binoculars and bird book!

Details. Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge is located at 6465 Refuge Road, Sherman. It is a day use facility open from sunrise to sunset. Visit the Friends of Hagerman website for information on free tours and talks at the refuge.

Monarch Migration

On sunny days this time of year, you’ll likely notice butterflies along North Texas roadways. This is the annual Fall migration of North American Monarch butterflies on their Texas Backyard Naturalist Monarch Butterflyway to warmer climes in the Oyamel fir trees in central Mexico. Unlike migrating birds, the Monarchs are not returning to a wintering ground. They are making the journey for the first and only time. Monarchs born in late summer have a life span of seven to nine months. That’s long enough to journey south, winter over, and then begin the journey back north. In early spring, this generation of Monarchs will make it as far as south Texas to lay eggs in milkweed. The Monarchs born in spring and summer continue their northward journey to Minnesota and other northern states. But unlike their parents and grandparents, the summer Monarchs live only two to eight weeks.  That means the Monarchs you see next Fall will be the great-great grandchildren of the ones you see today!

For more information on the great Monarch migration, check the Monarch Watch and Monarch Butterfly USA websites.