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Off the coast of Texas, one of the great traditions every February is the arrival of hundreds of whooping cranes from Canada In 2021, the cranes are still coming. But because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the celebration about their arrival is muted at best.

Each year since 1996, the migration of the cranes to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has been celebrated with the Whooping Crane Festival, drawing thousands of visitors to Port Aransas, the only town on Mustang Island, just off the coast of Corpus Christi.

The island, Goose Island State Park, and other areas around Aranas Bay are the only places where visitors can see the world’s last naturally occurring population of whooping cranes as they migrate south. This year, the festival has been canceled.

“We are unfortunately unable to host the traditional festival this year due to the pandemic,” organizers said in a statement. “Our goal is to keep everyone safe. We hope you understand.”

But no festival doesn’t mean no birds. There are walking tours and boat tours with very limited capacity that will allow visitors to see these magnificent creatures.

Whooping cranes in southern Texas.

The Wings of Winter Walking Tours will take place each Saturday and Sunday in February, with one leaving daily from the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. Registration is mandatory for the two-hour tours due to their limited capacities. Start times vary depending upon the day.

In addition, two extra tours will take place on Sunday, February 21. One leaves from the Nature Preserve at Charlie’s Pasture, and the second from Joan and Scott Holt Paradise Pond.

In addition, a limited number of boat tours around the island are available for a select number of visitors. All of the information is available in the Festival’s Wings of Winter Guide (PDF), which also lists best viewing locations, bird watching etiquette, and more.

The birds are truly a spectacular site. George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, calls them “the birds of superlative.”

The birds stand up to 5 feet tall, with wingspans of up to 8 feet. They make their 2,500-mile journey from Northern Canada to the Texas coast each winter, a trip that takes 50 days. They will leave the island in March, making now the time to see them in person.

“[They are] one of the loudest birds of our continent, one of the rarest birds worldwide, and, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating,” Archibald says.

While more than 300 birds typically make the trek to Port Aransas each winter, the exact number this year will not be known. Since 1950, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been conducting an aerial survey of the cranes in Texas, but that won’t take place this year.

A whooping crane catches a crab in southern Texas.

“Aerial surveys involve a pilot and at least two observers in a small plane for up to four hours at a time,” Wade Harrell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, said in a statement. “Due to the close exposure this survey requires and the fact that our pilots and observers often travel in for this effort from different parts of the country, we decided to forgo the aerial survey this winter with COVID-19 cases currently spiking.”

Harrell said skipping the survey this season is not ideal but shouldn’t have any lasting impact on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goals of monitoring long-term population trends.

“While we are disappointed that the historic aerial survey will not take place this year, we are encouraged by the fact that enduring partnerships enable us to continue to monitor the population this winter in a safe way,” Harrell said.

Officials believe the whooping crane population is now about 500, a significant increase from the early 1940s when the birds almost went extinct According to the Texas Whooper Watch Program, all of the birds alive today are descendants of the 16 cranes that were spotted on the central Texas coast in 1942.

Visitors who would like to make a getaway out of seeing the birds can find information about Port Aransas on the island’s website. Beaches, golf, fishing, and parasailing are among the activities available during the pandemic. For more on cranes, and enjoying this unique part of South Texas, consider:

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