- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Standing amid hundreds if not thousands of sandhill cranes in a field at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the handful of critically endangered whooping cranes that make the refuge their winter home can’t help but stand out.

At a height of around 5 feet, the whoopers are nearly a foot taller than the sandhills, and their brilliant white feathers and black wingtips offer a stark contrast to their close relative’s mottled gray.

“It would be pretty hard to confuse them with the other birds that you might see,” said Lizzie Condon, the Keep Whooping Cranes Safe coordinator for the International Crane Foundation. “People say ‘I’m not sure if I’ll be able to tell the difference,’ but once you see one it really jumps out at you.”

It’s a striking sight and one that was nearly lost forever. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the total population of whooping cranes dropped to about 15 birds in the 1940s.

The wetland dependent whooping cranes lost significant swaths of habitat to human development, and like the coastal roseate spoonbills that are returning to south Alabama, were frequently hunted for feathers.

Condon said the wild population is now up to about 600 individuals, exponentially more than the 15 holdouts who carried the species past World War II, but still hardly a stable population.

Condon said there are currently at least six whoopers at the Wheeler refuge right now, with the first arrivals landing on Nov. 14. That was slightly later than last year, when the birds arrived Nov. 1.

Last winter, a total of 36 whooping cranes were spotted in Alabama before the birds began their northward migration in March and April. Condon hopes this year the total will be more than 40.

“The count goes up every year, so hopefully we’ll continue that trend,” Condon said.

Now that the cranes are back in Alabama, a steady stream of birders have followed them to the wildlife refuge.

“There are people that we call ‘craniacs’, people who go there every day or spend significant amounts of time watching the whooping cranes,” Condon said. “There are definitely people here who care about the cranes, we’re just trying to help get the word out.”

The refuge features an indoor observation building with unobstructed views of common whooping crane sighting areas, and Condon said the cranes can even sometimes be seen from the visitor center. Both are free and open to the public.

“I think Alabama’s really lucky in that you do have a very good public viewing site for whooping cranes,” Condon said. “In Texas people pay to take boats to go see them, but here you can just roll into the parking lot at Wheeler and there they are.”

In addition to the everyday viewing opportunities, there are a handful of special events in and around the refuge to celebrate the whoopers. The refuge will host a Festival of the Cranes on Jan. 9-10, 2016, with viewing opportunities, educational programming and even a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator.

The Old Black Bear Brewing Company in Madison will release a limited edition whooping crane red ale on Jan. 8, with half the proceeds from sales going to whooping crane conservation efforts.

Tim Baker sees the whoopers nearly every day on his family’s land adjacent to the refuge, but made it clear that he’s no “craniac.” The avid outdoorsman and waterfowl hunter does, however, appreciate the birds’ return to the area around Wheeler like he appreciates the many other species in the area.

“The whooping crane has such a distinct call, there’s no other sound like it,” Baker said. “It’s like some kind of pure, wild historic sound and it’s so large that it’s really a ‘shock and awe’ kind of a bird, especially when you get one close.

“When it calls out, you’ll take notice, I can promise you that.”

Baker said he still remembers his first close encounter with the whoopers, which happened around 2010. He was working on a duck blind for the approaching hunting season when three of the whoopers flew directly over his head about 30 feet up.

“I’ll never forget the first time I really saw them up close and personal,” Baker said. “It was sort of a pea-soup fog and I heard the sound so I looked up and it looked like three 747s in the air.

“I’d seen them out in the field, but that was at like a quarter mile and you can’t tell much. When they come over that close to you, it’s pretty impressive.”

Another group of whooping cranes is passing through the state. Six young whoopers are being led by ultralight pilots with Operation Migration, a non-profit group that helps lead young whoopers from their summer home in Wisconsin to safe winter grounds at a refuge in Florida.

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