West End preserve is a popular place for sandhill cranes
Houses along the east side of 103rd Street sat dark in the predawn gloom as a small group assembled at the barricade blocking a muddy track running off west into the salt marsh.
A dull roar carried on a stiff arctic wind already was intruding on the morning quiet as early commuters crossed the Galveston causeway two or so miles to the north.
The half dozen at the barricade spoke in whispers, though, as they hauled gear from the backs of trucks and SUVs, passed around a can of bug spray and a box of sweets — doughnuts and bear claws.
It would be a while before the sun rose, but its arrival was foretold in streaks of lavender, pink and green inlaid in the low, quilted gray winter clouds.
Geared up and doused with DEET, members of the group, three serious birders and three novices along for the walk, one by one squeezed through a gap at the end of the barricade and headed out on the track. The destination was an observation platform 100 or so yards off 103rd Street in a 400-acre tract of bay shore and wetlands that birders call “the roost.”
Owned by the Galveston Bay Foundation, the roost is an important spot for island birders, especially during the cold months, because it’s a favorite sleeping spot for the island’s main winter visitors — sandhill cranes.
The birders, with big tripod-mounted spotting scopes balanced on their shoulders, moved along the track like stalking hunters — taking a few quiet, careful steps, then stopping to peer into the fuzzy light and listen for the sounds of their prey.
“The cranes spend the night in a pond,” Alice Anne O’Donell, one of the experienced birders, said in a whisper during a pause. “They stand in the water or on little islands. I think they feel safe in the water because they can hear a coyote coming.”
Atop the wooden observation platform, the birders trained their scopes and binoculars on a small oblong pond crowded with birds.
“There’s a hierarchy at the roost,” O’Donell said. “You can see it in the way the birds are arranged and when they begin to leave.”
Indeed, the small ducks were formed up in an outer ring, then medium-size birds such as egrets, roseate spoonbills and ibis formed a second line and the big sliver-gray cranes with their red caps occupied the middle. Most of the sandhills dozed in the water, some in almost to their feathers, but a few were perched up higher on small islands in the pond.
These were sentinels, keeping an eye out for predators in the thick marsh vegetation as the others slept, O’Donell said.
The birders counted 52 cranes that morning at the roost, part of the estimated 120 that came to the island this season. Birders last season counted about 250 of the cranes between San Luis Pass and Scholes International Airport, a favorite grazing spot and a good place to see the cranes during the day.
As the sun rose, the birds in the pond began to stir and the hierarchy was again apparent. At 7:15 a.m., the ducks took wing at once in a quacking flock that headed off west without hesitation or deviation.
At 7:30 a.m., the middle birds began departing in flights of three or four — some flew east, some west.
And as the lesser birds cleared out, the big cranes began their signature trilling “rattle calls” and were on the move, at first stalking across the pond in long, halting steps, then taking wing.
They left in small groups, most heading east, but a few made for the west.
The cranes, which are the highlight of winter birding along the coast, stay around until the spring, when they head back north for the summer.
Their arrival on the island is an important sign of the season for many.
“For a lot of people, it’s not fall until the cranes arrive,” O’Donell said.
The roost is on private property that the public is not allowed to enter without the expressed permission of the Galveston Bay Foundation, the owner. The foundation, in an effort to preserve the habitat, rarely grants such permission and grants it only to conservation groups monitoring birds. The foundation, however, allows the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council to conduct guided tours of the roost on the second weekend of December each year during the council’s Holiday with the Cranes.