Glimpsing one of the world’s rarest birds
Across the field on this frigid day, we watched several hundred tall gray sandhill cranes feeding, but we didn’t feel the cold. Quite comfortable behind the one-way glass of the observation tower at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, we felt only the warmth of excitement as we also spotted three special white birds, bigger and more majestic than others in the flock.
Never very common and now one of the rarest birds in North America, whooping crane numbers dipped to about 15 in the world by the 1940s. The population has rebounded to about 600 today.
Numbers of the similar sandhill crane species also dropped early in the 20th century, but now nearly 500,000 lesser sandhills and 100,000 greater sandhills migrate across North America. However, numbers remain low for some other subspecies.
The tallest birds in North America, whooping cranes stand about five feet tall, compared to sandhills at four feet. Darker gray, sandhills have bright red patches on their heads. Nearly all white, except for black wing tips, whoopers often feed with sandhills where their ranges overlap. People can only hope to see whoopers in a few places in the world, but one of them is Alabama.
“Whooping crane numbers are on the rise, but their population is still low,” says Amber Wilson with the International Crane Foundation Whooping Crane Outreach Program in Decatur. “There are two distinct migrating flocks in North America. One is the historic wild flock that travels from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas for the winter. The other migrating population is the reintroduced flock that travels from their breeding grounds in Wisconsin down to Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. There are also about 40 non-migrating birds in Louisiana and 10 in Florida.”
Fearing that disease or another catastrophe could devastate the whooping crane population in one stroke, the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org) and other groups formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. These conservationists wanted to establish a second migratory flock and did so in 2001.
“Historically there was at least one record of a whooping crane in Alabama before the reintroduction of the eastern migratory population,” says Hillary Thompson, an ICF spokeswoman. “Sandhill cranes are native to Alabama. Sandhill crane numbers were once very low, but their numbers have increased greatly over time.”
Now, these eastern birds pass through or winter in Alabama. Sandhills usually arrive at the 35,000-acre Wheeler NWR off Interstate 65 adjacent to Decatur in early November. The first whoopers typically follow a couple weeks later, but a severe cold front could push migrating birds southward. Both species generally leave the refuge in late February or early March heading northward.
“The refuge was established in 1938 as a migratory bird sanctuary,” says Teresa Adams, the Wheeler NWR supervising park ranger. “The refuge has diverse habitats, including reclaimed farmland replanted in hardwoods that provide places for more than 295 bird species, including more than 30 species of waterfowl in the winter. A few sandhill cranes started coming here about 20 years ago. In 2016-17, we had about 20,000 sandhills on the refuge. The whopping cranes started coming here in 2005 and their numbers have steadily increased. In the winter of 2016-17, we had 29 on the refuge.”
Photograph in comfort
Probably no other place on Earth provides a better place to view and photograph wild cranes, geese, ducks and other birds up close in comfort than the observation building. A short walk behind the Wheeler NWR Visitor Center, the building sits on a pond shoreline overlooking fields. In an elevated room surrounded by one-way glass, people can observe and photograph birds without sharp eyes spotting them. Photographers can also reserve an observation blind down near the pond shoreline if they wish.
“I don’t know of another place like it anywhere where people can get such a good look at the birds and stay warm in the winter doing it,” Adams says. “On some days, people can see all kinds of ducks, geese, thousands of sandhill cranes and some whooping cranes. Sometimes, the birds come right in front of the observation building. We also mounted a microphone on the building so people inside can hear the birds.”
The refuge closes many roads to motorized vehicles in the winter so people don’t chase off the birds. However, the roads remain open to hikers and bicyclists. Since the Tennessee River runs through the refuge, people can also see many bird species from boats.
People can see cranes and enjoy various exhibits, workshops, guest speakers, concerts and other activities in Decatur and on the refuge during the 2018 Festival of the Cranes, slated for Jan. 13-14. Area visitors can find any food, lodging and other necessities they need in Decatur.ν
For more about the area and the festival, call Melinda Dunn of the Decatur Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-232-5449 or 256-350-2028, or visit www.decaturcvb.org.
John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.