Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cranes in Texas

Thought I'd pass on an interesing experience I had on my trip to TX a coupleweeks ago. I was travelling with my MI shrimp farming friend Russ Allen, andwe had a day of bad weather and mosied(sp?) up the coast from Rockportthrough town called Palacious (pah-lah-shush). Just north of town was ashrimp operation Russ had known of for years but had never seen, so westopped in. These former rice farmers got into shrimp farming in themid-90's and now farm about 350 wet acres, 2.5 million pounds/year, with adandy state of the art processing plant -- all very interesting agriculture.

We took off in their truck to look over the ponds and on the way we passed afield with 50 Sandhill Cranes and I commented that we'd see them up North ina couple months. Conversation moved on to Russ' and my interest in birding,and I told my favorite story about Sandhill Cranes -- how the MI BreedingBird Atlas has a menu from a Jackson, MI hotel from 1918 with Sandhill Cranefeatured on the menu!

I'm used to getting some unbelieving comment in return when I tell thatstory, but the son matter of factly said "they're delicious, we roasted upfour of them at the end of the season last fall". I think he put it in a wayto get the full shock value from "this northern birder", and he did. My jawdropped -- I think I said "I wish I'd been there to try one", or somethingdumb, probably asking what the side dishes were.Now back in Michigan, I checked the TX regs, and sure enough there are 3large zones with staggered seasons for Sandhill, a daily bag limit of 3 anda posession limit of 6. I have no sense of how many hunters there are forthem, but it seems to me the annual take would be more than incidental. Ithink I'll email TX wildlife & ask about estimates.

Anyway, this news surprised me all the more in light of getting close viewsof Whooping Cranes the day before. We had a boat and were able to go up theIntercoastal Waterway N of Rockport between the mainland and the barrierMatagorda Island. It's a surreal trip! There, you're making your way up thechannel, there's 3 Whoopers (a pair & one young) for your viewing pleasureand they don't seem to bothered by you. Further up you come across one ofthe tour boats with 60 people, 30 scopes, and 30 cameras trained on anothercouple of Whoopers, and they don't seem too bothered by it. Now a doublewide barge of benzene comes by, driven by a huge tugs belching diesel, andthey don't seem too bothered by it. Further up, another pair & one young arebarely in the water on the shore, probing and fussing. We turn off the motorand drift with the light wind. A double barge of ChloroMondoHexaneEthane orsome god-awful environmental disaster waiting to happen churns by, roaring,spewing, and thowing a heavy wake. When the wake gets to the Whoopers onshore, they clearly don't like that and off they go in flight -- what a sight.

The juxtaposition of endangered species and envirodisaster was eyeopening. We figured we saw 26 of the 218 Whoopers on the planet thatafternoon, and I ended up feeling that the Sandhills are no less specialthan the Whoopers, just more plentiful-- plentiful enough to hunt!

Another impression to pass on is the incredible vulnerability of coastalchemical and petroleum processing industries to hurricanes and terrorism.The plants are wonders of chemical engineering, and very accessible. What Ihadn't thought of is that all the inputs to the plants have to get there tobe processed, and all the outputs have to get to market. Pipelines, trucks,20 barges a day churning past Whooping Cranes -- it's a dauntinginfrastructure of vulnerable targets we've built!

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