A few weeks ago, the Rev and the G.P. asked me if I’d like to go on a boat tour to view the recently returned Whooping Cranes. Since they were paying, and I always need stuff to write about, I accepted their invitation.
It was decided that the pauper (me) should chauffeur the wealthier folk (North America), so I attempted a Boris (my car) cleaning early Saturday morning. I left the dog nose prints on the back windows because that’s how I identify my vehicle in confusing parking lots, and went to pick up my riders. Mom’s BFF Pastor Carol was joining us, so we had a full bus.
After some fussing, we finally got the trunk loaded with enough optical equipment to accurately view Alpha Centauri (all of which the G.P. and I would wind up carrying) and started off down the road. The problems started immediately, as no one actually knew where we were going, despite vehement backseat assertions to the contrary. Mom had put the location into her GPS, but then refused to let me do what the lady in the phone said to do. Dad helpfully said, “Mom knows where she’s going, but you can’t trust Mom.” The Rev’s commands required NASCAR level turning skills, and Dad kept screaming, “YOU’LL KILL US ALL!” I missed the on-ramp to the Harbor Bridge. Then everyone started yelling at me in unison (except Pastor Carol, who huddled terrified in the backseat). My frustration caused me to blaspheme loudly as I turned around in a gravel parking lot. Cold disapproval from the backseat passengers dropped the temperature in the car a full 42 degrees. I turned up the heater and pressed on.
We finally got to Fulton, after much nagging and disregarding of the GPS. We ate lunch (which calmed everyone down significantly – especially those of us who had beers), and everyone (especially those of us who had beers) decided we had to hit the head before we left. I went first. When I returned, Carol and the Rev both announced that they had to go at the same time. “It’s a one-holer,” Mom told Carol as she left the table.
BUT HOW DID SHE KNOW? Mom hadn’t been to the restaurant before. The Rev had evidently developed a very specialized form of moderately useful psychic ability. Pastor Carol (who had recently traveled to Ireland with the Rev) and I marveled over it. When Mom returned, I asked her how she knew – prepared to deliberately haul her to unusual places so that she could give me toilet specs. “I went when we first came in,” she revealed.
Scientific inquiry can really take the magic out of things.
Finally, it was time to board the boat. It looked like a pretty good ship, until I misread the name on the side as SINKMOR (it really said SKIMMER). I started wondering how far I could swim in the cold water. “Probably not that far,” I hypothesized as I walked up the gangplank. Luckily, Captain Tommy was prepared with a safety lecture. He pointed out about 6.2 million lifejackets (so square they looked like they had been made from Sponge Bob’s entire extended family) stowed snugly overhead. Captain T. also really hit the fact that the tour would take three hours (“a three hour tour,” sang the bird nerds), causing me to further contemplate crashing. “Oh no! I’m Gilligan!” I thought mournfully, having systematically eliminated the rest of the survivors of the S.S. Minnow.
The purring boat backed up and we left the harbor. Pausing only to look at some double breasted cormorants on the seawall, we set out over the glass-smooth sea.
Soon we spotted my favorite birds of the day. The small-eared grebes reminded me of prairie dogs as they shot across the water, only to dive deep, and then stick their little heads out, look around suspiciously, and then duck right back under. The lady in front of us had been cradling something swaddled in a blanket. I thought it might be a baby, or a small dog, or some kind of bird. Suddenly, she whipped free a telephoto lens the approximate size of the Hubble telescope. The grebes were about four feet from the boat.
After looking at a variety of ducks and cranes, we moved into whooper territory. Captain T. pulled the boat right on top of an oyster bed, and pointed out a mated pair with their offspring. The bird nerds went crazy, and Dad pulled out his own giant lens. I stayed in the back with the Rev and looked at the birds out the window utilizing one of the sixteen pairs of binoculars we brought. You don’t want to fight a bird nerd for position.
The whoopers really were beautiful, but I can see why they might have survival issues. They produce a very limited amount of offspring – two, to be precise – and the more dominant chick usually kills the other. This act is called avian siblicide. Biologists have taken to stealing the second egg and raising the chicks themselves, but this presents some problems. Survival and mating aren’t instinctive for whoopers, so the poor scientists have to put on whooping crane suits and teach the juvenile birds how to stay alive (and…ahem…mate). From what I observed, watching our parental pair trying to teach their inordinately stupid young bird (I named him Kevin) how to eat, I’m pretty sure the biologists have an uphill battle. The bird nerds cheered for poor Kevin (who seemingly found it next to impossible to swallow a fish that his mother caught for him), but I mocked him tirelessly. A fellow avian tourist was furious. “I’ll bet you had problems learning how to eat, too,” she scolded, “and no one made fun of you.”
“Actually,” I replied, “people did make fun of me. Two of them are sitting right here, in fact.” My parents chuckled.
“Yeah,” quipped my mother, “how can you not laugh at someone who just shoved mashed carrots up her nose?”
A multi-family brawl was prevented by another boat sliding onto the oyster bed beside us. It boasted an even bigger lens than the lady who was carrying the Hubble. Some staring and speculation regarding size became immediately necessary. The nerds sighed a collective, “Ooooooh.”
We traveled through the preserve for another hour, viewing other groups of whoopers and even catching sight of a cohort (a group of “teenagers”). The total count for the day was 53. As we turned back to the harbor, the birders came in to get their free glasses of Franzia merlot. I (always keen to stay clear of people) adjourned to the bow of the boat for the trip back to the harbor.
The chilly wind whipped my face as we sped across the platinum platter of the sea. I noticed a striking number of cobalt blue trashcans littering the marshes and shoals. Captain T. helpfully explained that this is where all of Rockport’s brand new receptacles wound up after Hurricane Harvey. Ironically, they’re the only litter we saw in the preserve.
Thanks to our adventure, I’m currently a compendium of useless facts about the whoopers. There are only about six hundred of the birds left in the world, four hundred of which are here right now, and it’s worth the trip to see them. Besides, someone probably ought to go check on Kevin. I’m fairly sure he’s still trying to figure out how to eat a fish.