AUSTWELL, Texas — The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of the whooping crane, a bird on the verge of extinction. I drove 20 miles off the main road to get there. I climbed a tall observation tower. In the distance, at least four football fields away, were, or at least seemed to be, two white dots in the waving reeds.
"Whooping cranes," a man announced to his wife.
He lifted his camera to shoot a photograph in which, no doubt, the birds would appear the size of two dots of lint.
It was then that I couldn't help but brag.
"I already saw three whooping cranes, down in Lamar, in somebody's back yard," I piped up.
They looked skeptical.
"No, really," I said. "They were right there, by the Big Tree."
This time of year, the western Louisiana and Texas Gulf coast is teeming with Winter Texans from Northern states.
The region also attracts migratory waterfowl that spend winters much like humans do — lounging around and gobbling seafood.
This year, 268 whoopers are bunking in or near the wildlife refuge, including 45 chicks. That is a good number for the only wild flock in existence. It is an incredible comeback for a bird that in 1941 numbered just 16 left in the world.
The hard part is that most cranes feed far from the refuge's observation tower, making them hard to spot.
Luckily, someone at the Rockport Chamber of Commerce earlier that day mentioned that whoopers were also sighted in a residential neighborhood in Lamar.
Let's back up a moment. This region of Texas is called the coastal bend, with strings of barrier islands creating a tidal marsh feast for birds — and scenic splendor for humans. Rockport and its neighbor Fulton are cute artists' towns.
Just south is Port Aransas and Padre Island National Seashore, in my opinion the nicest part of the Texas coast. To the north lie Galveston, Crystal Beach, Texas, and Holly Beach, La.
Except for South Padre Island, Texas beaches aren't as white or tropical as Florida's.
"As a whole, many people don't even realize Texas has a coast," says RoShelle Gaskins, spokeswoman for the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Many tourists also believe that the Gulf of Mexico is one big oil slick. But western Louisiana and Texas were untouched by last year's Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill.
"People were calling every day," says Rockport tourism director Krystal White, who had to keep reassuring folks that her area was not affected — and in fact, that's where a lot of oil-rescued birds from Louisiana were temporarily relocated.
In January, it's too cold to swim in the area; water temperature this month was 54 degrees in Galveston and 58 degrees on South Padre Island (by comparison, St. Petersburg, Fla. was 62 degrees.) Water temperatures warm up into the 70s by April.
Anyway, the Rockport Chamber of Commerce gave me a map to the mysterious Big Tree. I followed US-35 north about 10 miles to the Lamar turnoff. Soon, the road was lined with live oaks, bent over with their gnarled bark and gray-green leaves. Near Goose Island State Park, I kept driving until St. Charles Bay appeared. No sign of birds. But here was the Big Tree.
With a trunk the width of a station wagon, it is the biggest tree in Texas. It is at least 1,000 years old, the survivor of countless hurricanes, floods, droughts and humans.
I stood near its comforting bulk for a moment, then turned back to the road.
That's when I saw the cranes.
Across a big field, three of them stood. Two were white, nearly five feet tall, with black legs as narrow as piping and flashes of black frills on their wings.
The third was a youngster, still a blotchy tan and white.
They nibbled in a pond. They fluffed their feathers. Not far behind them, a man worked on his lawnmower in his garage.
Later, I found out the true best way to see whooping cranes is by boat tour from Rockport or Fulton. They'll get you up close before the flock flies home to the Northwest Territories, Canada, in spring.
And it's worth visiting the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for its excellent visitors center and chance to see more whoopers.
And if you're down in this part of Texas already (about 4 hours south of Houston), you'd might as well visit Corpus Christi, with its famed Texas State Aquarium and USS Lexington battleship museum.
If you are a spring breaker, tip a brew in Port Aransas or South Padre Island.
And if you like pure nature, try Padre Island, the 110-mile national seashore. It'll be just you and the dunes.
Out of all the places in the world, this Texas Gulf Coast is the choice spot for one of the world's rarest birds.
The Big Tree said it's got room for you, too.
WHO ARE WINTER TEXANS?
Thousands of Northerners flock to south Texas and its coast during winter. Most are budget travelers who drive their RVs and stay in RV parks. Who are they? —Most are from Minnesota, Iowa, Canada and Michigan —Average age is 70 —58 percent are women —They create 75,000 temporary households —They contribute $802 million to the state's economy
(SOURCE: "2010 Winter Texan Survey," University of Texas Pan-American Valley Markets and Tourism Research Center)
IF YOU GO:
Rockport, Texas, is on Aransas Bay. It is known for art galleries and its boat trips to view whooping cranes. To its south are Corpus Christi and Padre Island. A few miles north are the Lamar Peninsula and the Big Tree. (For information on the tree, bird boat tours, lodging, galleries, see www.rockport-fulton.org; 800-242-0071.)
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is 25 miles north of Rockport. Entry fee is $5 per car or $3 per person (361-286-3559).