Aransas NWR is one of more than 545 National Wildlife Refuges in the USA, and is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). It is one of the most popular birding areas in Texas, famous as the best site in the world for the largest wild flock of the endangered Whooping Crane. In addition, a large number of other birds can be seen there. More than 392 species have been recorded in total, one of the longest birdlists from any of the USA's network of wildlife refuges.
Covering nearly 55,000 acres the area's habitats include grassy saltflats, live oak woodlands, lakes, lagoons and the shallow waters of San Antonio Bay. It is part of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex which consists of five units, totalling 115,670 acres: Aransas, Lamar, Matagorda Island, Myrtle Foester-Whitmire, and Tatton.
Aransas NWR is site CTC 037 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail
The Whooping Cranes are present from late October to early April and to reduce undue disturbance the interior of the refuge is closed. However, the cranes can be seen with telescopes from an observation tower. Other birds present include Sandhill Crane, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, White Ibis and White-faced Ibis as well as numerous waterfowl, waders, rails, and Wild Turkey.
The rare Masked Duck is more likely here than virtually anywhere else in the USA. Raptors include Red-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Hawk and Crested Caracara.
Smaller birds are rich and varied and Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Black-crested Titmouse, Carolina Wren and White-eyed Vireo are all easily found. At dusk it may be possible to see Great Horned Owl, Common Nighthawk and Pauraque.
Among the rare birds that have been recorded at Aransas are Clay-colored Robin, Couch's Kingbird and Crimson-collared Grosbeak. Attwater's Prairie Chicken has been extirpated.
Birds you can see here include:
Common Loon, Least Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Reddish Egret, Tricolored Heron, Little Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Least Bittern, American Bittern, Wood Stork, White Ibis, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Ross's Goose, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Mottled Duck, Northern Pintail, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Swallow-tailed Kite, White-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Wild Turkey, Northern Bobwhite, Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane, Yellow Rail, Black Rail, Clapper Rail, King Rail, Virginia Rail, Sora, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, American Coot, American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, American Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Wilson's Plover, Killdeer, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, Mountain Plover, American Woodcock, Wilson's Snipe, Short-billed Dowitcher, Long-billed Dowitcher, Hudsonian Godwit, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Upland Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Dunlin, Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Bonaparte's Gull, Laughing Gull, Franklin's Gull, Sooty Tern, Least Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Black Tern, Common Tern, Forster's Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Black Skimmer, Rock Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Inca Dove, Common Ground Dove, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Groove-billed Ani, Greater Roadrunner, Barn Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Common Nighthawk, Pauraque, Chimney Swift, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Acadian Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Horned Lark, Bank Swallow, Tree Swallow, Purple Martin, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Sprague's Pipit, American Pipit, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Waxwing, Carolina Wren, Bewick's Wren, House Wren, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-crested Titmouse, European Starling, House Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, American Goldfinch, Orange-crowned Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Seaside Sparrow, Le Conte's Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird, Boat-tailed Grackle, Common Grackle, Great-tailed Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Orchard Oriole, Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow
Mammals are also well represented at Aransas and among the most frequently seen are Nine-banded Armadillo, Collared Peccary (locally known as Javelina) and White-tailed Deer with Bobcat and Puma rarely seen.
American Alligator and a variety of turtles can also be seen in the area.
History and Use
The area covered by the Refuge and now known as the Blackjack Peninsula, was formed 120,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era. Towards the end of the Ice Age the melting glaciers caused a rise in the sea level and the encroaching sea created many ridges of sand along the Gulf coast. Aransas is the remnant of one of the huge barrier islands so formed. Over the next few thousand years, sediments filled in the barrier lagoons, connecting the island to the mainland.
Indian occupation began 8000 years ago, with Prehistoric people hunting mammoth and bison, and from 3000 BC to 100 AD, the Middle or Archaic Indians were there, but there is little trace of any of these people. Between 1000 and 1850 AD, the Karankawa Indians made the area their home, but unfortunately the early white settlers arriving in Texas in the early 1800's, clashed with the Indians. The Karankawas were a very proud people and they were unwilling to give up their ancestral lands and ways to the white man. By the time of the Texas Revolution in 1835, the Karankawa Indians were almost extinct and one of the last remaining groups was killed in Austwell in 1851.
The name Aransas is thought to have come from the Basque language. According to legend, in 1740 a Basque shepherd saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a thorn bush and uttered the words: Aranzan zu, meaning "you are sitting in thorns". The Basque word for place of thorns is "aransa".
Early settlers named the area the Blackjacks because of the many blackjack oaks growing there. By the late 1870's, numerous homesteads, farms and ranches, were spread over the peninsula, but the sandy soil was not good for crops, so they raised livestock, causing overgrazing of the land. Ranching continued into the early decades of the twentieth century and in the 1920's the St Charles Ranch imported exotic game, such as Ring-necked Pheasant, California Quail, axis deer, and European boar for hunting.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt established The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, by Executive Order, on Dec. 31st, 1937. Initially it was named the Aransas Migratory Waterfowl Refuge and covered 47,261 acres on the Blackjack Peninsula.
Areas of Interest
Tour Loop Drive from the visitor centre crosses some excellent habitat and passes the observation tower.
There are also birding trails close to the visitor center and the observation tower and a boardwalk over an area of saltmarsh.
Access and Facilities
To reach Aransas from Rockport, head north on Hwy 35 and turn right (east) to Austwell on FM 774. Turn right again on FM 2040, just south of Austwell. It is about 6 miles to the Refuge gate. Continue to the Visitor Centre to register. For directions from other areas, please see the official ANWR website: 
Hours of operation
The Refuge Tour Loop drive is open daily, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. The Visitor Center is open daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas Days) from 8:30am-4:30pm. There is an after-hours registration area outside the Visitor Center, where brochures and envelopes can be found.
- $3 - 1 person in vehicle
- $5 - 2 or more persons in vehicle
- $25 - commercial vehicle (van or bus) with up to 20 people
- $50 - commercial vehicle (van or bus) with 21 or more people
Entry is free if you have an Aransas Annual Pass ($15), Federal Duck Stamp ($25 - valid July 1 - June 30), Annual Pass ($80), Annual Pass for Active Military (free to active military members with proper identification), Senior Pass ($10 to US citizens and permanent residents of 62 and older) or an Access Pass (free to persons with disabilities). Please show to the front desk personnel. Prices correct as off Aug. 2017 - please see the official ANWR website for more details: 
There is no public camping available on the Refuge. The nearest campsite is at Hopper's Landing (Tel: 361-286-3331), about 3 miles away. Two RV Parks are located in Austwell (361-286-0232 and 361-286-3523). The nearby towns of Rockport, Fulton, and Port Aransas have plenty of hotels, motels and Bed and Breakfast establishments.
- Claude F. Lard Visitor Center, which has exhibits, interpretive displays, programs, auditorium, informational pamphlets, binoculars-on-loan, bathrooms, nature store, snacks and drinks.
- A 16 mile self-guided paved auto tour loop with pullouts and wayside exhibits.
- 7 walking trails, ranging in length from 0.3 - 1.25 miles, through a variety of habitats 
- Alligator viewing area.
- Picnic area with bathrooms.
- A 40 feet high Observation Tower, which provides a view of San Antonio Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway. A distant view of the endangered Whooping Crane is usually possible, so carry your spotting scope with you.
- Boardwalk with bathrooms nearby.
- Photography blind (hide) halfway along Birding Trail no. 2.
- Bicycling is popular on the 16 mile paved tour loop.
- There is no fuel available at the Refuge. The nearest gas station is in Tivoli, 14 miles away.
- Alligators and poisonous snakes are always present, so please watch your step.
- Mosquitoes can be bad at certain times of the year, so come prepared.
- Dress appropriately - hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, water, etc. It can be hot even in mid-winter.
- Don't forget your binoculars, camera, field guide, etc.
- Cell phones usually don't work at the Refuge. If you have an emergency, please contact the Visitor Center, where they have a first aid kit, wheelchair, stretcher, and AED unit. They also have jumper cables, etc, if you should have a vehicle emergency.
- The best time of year to visit for bird watching, is Spring and Fall for migration and Winter for the Whooping Cranes.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 100
Austwell, Texas 77950
Ranger Station: (361) 286-3559
E-mail: [email protected]
- Official Aransas NWR website
- Friends of Aransas and Matagorda Island NWRs
- Rockport Chamber of Commerce birding information or 1-800-242-0071
- Whooping Crane boat tours. The season runs from mid-November to March. Please contact the tour operators for departure points and reservations before you go.
- Wharf Cat Departs from Rockport or Port Aransas. Tel: 1-800-605-5448 or 361-729-4855
- Aransas Bay Birding Charters offering Photography Tours Captain Kevin Sims Tel: 361-790-3746
- Latest update on Whooping Crane numbers
- Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map and driving loops
- Bird list generated by eBird for the years 2007-2012
Content and images posted by HelenB
At Aransas NWR we saw a family group of 3 Whooping Cranes from the 40' Observation Tower in late Feb. 05 - even with a scope they were a long way away. Better views are obtained by taking one of the Crane Boat Tours out of Rockport/Fulton or Port Aransas. Aransas has an auto tour loop, with several birding trails along it.
- Great birding, specially during migration.
- Difficult to see the Whooping Cranes even from the Ob. Tower at a distance of 1- 2 miles from their feeding grounds. Mosquitoes can be very bad.
Said it all in the pro's and con's. It is great habitat and even tho, starting to show wear at the seams, still a great birding location.
- Still in good shape, relatively speaking
- NWR's, Nat'l. Parks etc. are barely funded if at all now and even here it is starting to show. But still a great location and the Whooping Cranes can usually be seen in the winter.