Two notes, clear and deep and like a bugle but with trill and timbre that clearly said a great, living thing made this music, rolled like a sparkle of light and warmth through the drearily gray, damp, cold winter sky wrapping an island on Texas’ mid-coast this past Saturday morning.

“You hear that?” Wyatt Lang said from his hide in the clump of cattails rimming a small, shallow, mostly freshwater pond where four of us sat overlooking a spread of duck decoys. “Whooping cranes! Sweet!”

It would get sweeter, thanks to whooping cranes, that morning. But it would get anything but sweet the next, also because of a whooping crane.

First, the sweet.

The morning had not been great for taking ducks – we’d seen only a trickle of redheads and shovelers and a few wigeon. But there had been plenty of those memorable moments of wonder and illumination that all waterfowlers – at least those open to the natural world in which they purposely place themselves – experience.

Waterfowlers are, by nature and practice, bird watchers. It’s what we do, even if we don’t realize it. Yes, we look for our quarry. But we see much more.

That morning, we watched northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, caracaras and even an aplomado falcon – all fellow hunters – course the bluestem grasslands. Squads of shorebirds – willets and yellowlegs and other sandpipers – whipped past in salt-scented air. White and brown pelicans sailed over the nearby dunes, and a black-crowned night heron stalked the shallows.

As we sat among the cattails, we were joined by a pair of other hunters. A colorful yellowthroat warbler, with its black mask and namesake bright yellow throat and breast, and a much more humbly adorned marsh wren bounced from stem to stem, animatedly “bugging,” snapping meals of cold-slowed mosquitoes and other insects. Often, the little hunters were within inches of us.

I was watching the marsh wren greedily gobble a too-slow spider when Wyatt simply said, “Look!”

Only 300 remain

From behind us and to the right, three huge birds – two glowing white with black wingtips and scarlet topknots, one a mottled cinnamon – came slowly flying over the edge of the pond. They were barely 10 yards off the ground, and we could hear the sound of damp air displaced as they slowly heaved their wings.

The family of whooping cranes – two adults and their brownish youngster – seemed to move in slow motion as they cupped their wings, stretched their impossibly long legs and, with a delicacy belying their size, landed on the opposite side of the pond.

The four of us simply looked at each other and at the birds and smiled.

In front of us, maybe 40 yards away, were three of the only 300 or so wild whooping cranes remaining on this planet. We were seeing something very few people on this earth get to see.

Whooping cranes are many things. They are the tallest North American bird, with adults standing about 5 feet. They are one of only two species of cranes native to North America.

But they are, to many, so much more than just big, stately birds. They are symbols and totems and natural treasures that long have been special to residents of the Texas coast and today hold special meanings to the world.

Whooping cranes are, of course, one of the world’s most endangered species and a focus of intense conservation efforts.

Whooping cranes have never been abundant. Biologists believe only about 10,000 of the birds lived in North America prior to European colonization. Some of those cranes were year-round (non-migratory) residents of the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Texas. Others were migrants, nesting in the far north and wintering along the Gulf Coast.

Last refuge

By the 1940s, the Gulf Coast’s resident whooping cranes had disappeared, with the migrant population reduced to fewer than two dozen birds. A combination of habitat destruction and humans killing birds had the cranes on the verge of extinction.

The handful of remaining whoopers nested in the far north, around what is now Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada, and migrated 2,400 miles to the shallow bays of the middle-Texas coast around what is now Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, created specifically as a refuge for the birds.

The wild whooping crane population has slowly increased over the past 70 years, and the birds have expanded their wintering range a bit along the Texas coast. But the population, at about 300 birds, still remains perilously low, and the birds’ continued existence is anything but secure. Efforts to establish other flocks of whooping cranes – a resident flock in Louisiana and a migratory flock that travels between the Midwest and Florida – are underway but face uncertain futures.

So the only wild flock of whooping cranes winters along a small section of the Texas coast, where they have been a part of the natural world for at least 10,000 years. And they have been important parts of the coastal world to humans for almost as long. It is telling that flutes made of whooping crane leg bones have been found among the items placed in graves of the Karankawa people.

Magical experience

The four of us watched the whooping crane family forage among the edge of the pond, looking for the crabs the winter whoopers heavily feed on during their annual Texas stays. We forgot duck hunting. There would be no shooting of any kind while the birds were here. We watched them until they disappeared in the distance, swallowed by the sweep of coastal grasslands.

Watching the whooping cranes, I recalled other similar encounters with these special creatures. This was the second time I’d had a family of whooping cranes alight on a pond when I was duck hunting. And I’ve seen and heard them dozens of times while duck hunting and fishing from Port O’Connor to Port Aransas, the center of the winter whooping crane universe. Each one of those encounters was memorable and humbling and incredibly valued – to see and hear something so rare is a magical experience.

The elation of Saturday’s close encounter was deflated barely 24 hours later when I first heard of the discovery of a dead whooping crane near Rockport.

This past Sunday morning, a waterfowl hunting guide discovered the remains of an adult whooping crane near a duck blind in Aransas Bay. The guide called Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens, who retrieved the carcass.

Tuesday, the bird’s body was shipped to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s Forensics Laboratory in Oregon, where a necropsy to determine cause of death will be conducted, said Capt. Henry Balderamas of TPWD’s law enforcement division.

Investigating death

The bird’s death is being investigated by TPWD wardens and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agents. Because of the circumstances surrounding the dead whooping crane, law enforcement officials are leaving open the possibility that the bird’s death was other than natural.

“We’re hoping we can get an exact cause of death and a timeline – how long the bird has been dead, from the necropsy – and go from there,” Balderamas said.

Since 1968, five people have been charged with shooting and killing whooping cranes in Texas and either found guilty or accepting of plea agreements. The most recent case was in 2013, when a Dallas resident pleaded guilty to killing a whooping crane while waterfowl hunting in the same general area as the bird found Sunday. He paid a total of $15,000 in fines.

“It’s a shame to lose one of these birds, no matter what the cause,” Balderamas said. “They are pretty special.”

Yes, they are.