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Photo of a brown pelican OPEN SPACE

The Wings of Winter

by Maxine Kumin

I never heard a gull laugh until my husband and I went to Rockport, Texas. A little Gulf Coast town full of bait shops and boats for hire and decrepit piers where great blue herons somnolently perch, waiting for their perfect fish to swim by, it was a casual paradise for us New Englanders. We were stunned by the scene. Our birding skills were limited to chickadees and nuthatches, tufted titmice and purple finches, hardy types that spend the winters with us in New Hampshire.

At home, our most spectacular bird is the pileated woodpecker couple that drops in from time to time to pluck the bittersweet that is slowly strangling one of our enormous ash trees. We put out suet for the downy and hairy woodpeckers and we startle every time a horde of evening grosbeaks swoop in with their yellow and black scapulars to clean out the feeder in minutes.

Seven years ago, we bought two used-up gravel pits that abutted our property. With the help of a small grant and a lot of sweat equity we gradually restored them as wildlife preserves. Now more wild turkeys than porcupines bed down there (and we much prefer them). Grouse and partridge scoot airborne when we walk through to see how the crab-apple saplings are faring. But with a barn full of horses needing looking after, we could be, we thought, only casual watchers of the winged.

We had come to Rockport just for a long weekend; to thaw out, relax, admire a 360-degree horizon. Curiosity almost instantly pricked us into action. With a decent pair of binoculars and the guidance of local friends, we went from spectacle to spectacle: sandhill cranes bobbing around the dry reeds of their favorite habitat; roseate spoonbills feeding -- or, more accurately, shoveling -- in the marshes; the long-billed curlew, whose incurving beak is a miracle of engineering; quick-stepping willets and greater yellowlegs; coots and scoters, skimmers, mergansers, pelicans, and our own common loon, down from Maine to disport in these warm waters. We saw almost a hundred species of birds the first day.

On the second day, we climbed aboard Cap'n Ted's Whooping Crane for a trip up the coastline of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and saw 22 of the 317 whoopers known to live in the wild. Just to catch a glimpse of the snow-white five-foot-tall whooping cranes is an epiphany. They are still gravely endangered. They mate for life, make the perilous journey north via the Platte River in Nebraska all the way to Canada for nesting season and back. And because they don't begin to breed until they are three years old, raising this tiny remnant to a stable population will take years of vigilance.

Two days was hardly enough. A month at leisure would have been better, but we squeezed out a third day to take the free ferry across the Corpus Christi ship channel to Mustang Island. Bottlenose dolphins played alongside the boat and brown pelicans dove for fish in our wake. Along the approaching shore, we saw black skimmers and oystercatchers.

At Port Aransas's Tarpon Inn, where FDR once was celebrated for the giant tarpon he hauled from those waters, we came upon the Port Aransas Birding Center. On the elevated boardwalk that extends into the freshwater marsh, we accepted several offers to peer through serious birders' scopes at cinnamon teals, black-bellied whistling ducks, black-necked stilts, and lots more roseate spoonbills.

So many earnest humans paying obeisance to the birds! Such respectful observation, such camaraderie among the binoculared, monoculared, tripodded, and unencumbered gives this participant hope. Every acre we set aside represents us at our best.

Back once again in New Hampshire, we took to wearing binocs around our necks whenever we crisscrossed the old gravel pits reborn as wildlife management areas. With our renewed stealth, that spring we regularly spotted birds we might have missed before: a busy kestrel working the peak of the rise; a scarlet tanager; and briefly, almost unbelievably, a pair of indigo buntings. Late one afternoon we flushed a string of turkeys and two ruffed grouse. No great rarities in these woods, but while we enjoyed them through our lenses a large grayish blur intervened. Refocusing, we melted behind some scrub and waited deferentially as a cow moose meandered by, down the incline that had so recently been a raw gravel-cut, to the stream below, like the manifestation of a larger idea.

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Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin is the author of Quit Monks or Die! (Story Line Press), a murder mystery about sensory-deprivation experiments on primates. Her 15th poetry collection, Jack and Other New Poems (Norton), includes works about man's relationship with the land.

Photo: Corbis

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council