The Big Birds Are Back

Winter in Texas means the return of the Big Birds. As many of you know, I’m a summer guy. Give me heat and plenty of it. That said, I have to admit there's a few good things about winter in Texas, starting with what I call Bonus Days, those days when the temperatures rise into the 60s or 70s and you get the sudden urge to call your friends and family up north, just to rub it in. Even those not inclined to tolerate the Texas heat in July and August appreciate Texas winters. The air is sharper, the sunsets are more colorful, and the night skies starrier.

Winter’s arrival also marks the return of the big birds to Texas. I realized that today driving home in the Hill Country. The brilliant-blue, cloudless sky seemed to be chock-full of raptors riding the winds above.

I called Canyon of the Eagles on Lake Buchanan near Burnet (, where the Vanishing River Cruise departs, to check up on the bald eagles that spend the winter nearby. The nice lady on the phone reported they’re back and soaring upstream from the lake on the Colorado River. The 64 room Canyon of the Eagles lodge, designed by Flato-Lake architects of San Antonio, is the first real eco-resort in Texas and has the best astronomical observatory for public stargazing this side of McDonald Observatory.

An overnight stay at the lodge isn’t necessary to take the 2 and a half and 4 hour boat cruises on the Texas Eagle, which runs daily except Tuesdays. But it sure enhances the experience

Then I called the Texas Whooping Cranes (, who run boat tours to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge from Rockport (Weds-Sun) and Port Aransas (Mon-Tues) in the 98 passenger M/V Wharf Cat catamaran. Donna told me that the count of the world’s largest population of the largest bird in North America is ‘way up—216 whoopers so far with a few stragglers still expected, compared to last winter’s popular of 194. “We’ve got two pairs of twins this year. That’s pretty rare,” she said.

If you don’t want to get up close and personal by boat, you can always drive into the refuge and scan for whooping cranes from the shoreline or from one of the elevated viewing platforms throughout the refuge. Even if the whooping cranes weren’t there, this is prime time to walk and drive around the refuge. The weather’s pleasant, gators and critters are just as easy to spot as during the rest of the year, and the bugs are gone. The price is right too. Just remember, that town you might drive through on the way to the refuge, Tivoli, has one of those strange Texas pronounciations—Tie-Vol-luh. Don’t ask.
Be sure to check out Austwell while you’re at it.

Raptor viewing is a free added attraction to any drive down US 281 from San Antonio to Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley or US 77 from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. Just keep your eyes peeled and watch the fenceposts and telephone poles. If you pay close enough attention you'll see Red-tailed, White-tailed, Zone-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper's, Harris's. Swainson's and Ferruginous hawks, Peregrine and other falcons, assorted kites and kestrels and occasionally Osprey and Golden and Bald eagles.

Mexican eagles, aka caracara, easily identified by their slender body and white-tipped wings and white-crest, are abundant throughout South Texas this time of year, especially around Gonzales east along the coastal prairie towards Eagle Lake, which sports some of the largest populations of waterfowl on earth during winter months.

Seeing all these big birds filling our skies fills me with hope. Whatever mankind is doing to the earth, we haven’t done so much to get exterminate the big’uns. At least not yet.

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