A quick check of social media, and I saw some exciting news: Whoopers are heading our way.
One of the most unique reestablishment stories of our time, once on the verge of extinction, these majestic birds are making a comeback, and if you are lucky, and observant, you just might get the chance to see one here in the Sooner State.
Social media reports include a pair of whooping cranes at Lake Thunderbird, near Norman; a pair of birds near Great Salt Plains NWR, in Northwest Oklahoma: a single bird at Hackberry Flat, near Frederick, and additional reports from Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira NWR both in Kansas. With the cold fronts starting to roll in, those birds should move south soon.
While the waterfowl report at Salt Plains does not show any whooping cranes right now, there is definitely an influx of waterfowl and sandhill cranes. There are nearly 35,000 sandhill cranes, 2,500 ducks, 4,300 geese, 1,000 American avocets and too many Franklin gulls to count. A good sign for what is to come. And that might mean a chance at seeing the majestic, endangered birds closer to home.
One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane, migrates through Oklahoma every fall and may be spotted during the next several weeks. The entire migrating population of Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory group, about 500 birds, will pass through the state between now and the first week of November, according to the International Crane Foundation.
“The population size is remarkable, especially considering there were no more than 15 whooping cranes left in 1941,” said Mark Howery, biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Twice a year, whooping cranes face a long and potentially hazardous migration. In the fall, they travel from nesting grounds in Alberta, Canada, to wintering grounds along the Texas coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
The usual whooper migration, including several juveniles, move from Canada, and usually make stops at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in west, central Kansas. That refuge is on a direct line with Salt Plains, and then continuing south to Hackberry Flat, in Tillman County.
“If you see a whooping crane, let us know,” Howery said. “Reports help us better understand the migration needs and behavior patterns of these birds.”
Howery said that Oklahoma’s sportsmen account for about one-third of whooping crane sightings each fall and are good at distinguishing the endangered species from more common birds.
The Wildlife Department’s website, www.wildlifedepartmen.com has an easy reporting form to document these sightings. Reports will include the date, location, number of birds seen, and what they were doing (i.e. – flying, feeding, loafing). That information will be shared with a federal tracking program led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A few distinguishing characteristics of whooping cranes are the white body, black wingtips, red fore head, and height — it’s the tallest bird in North America. Also, the neck and legs extend straight when in flight.
Sandhill cranes have a similar body shape, but in contrast, are gray overall with dark gray wing feathers that do not have black tips. White pelicans are also sometimes confused with whooping cranes because they are similar in color. However, the pelican is stockier, usually travels in large flocks and does not extend its legs when in flight.
Two other species of confusion are snow geese and egrets. Snow geese are much smaller and do not extend their legs in flight. Egrets lack the black wingtips of the whooping crane and hold their necks in a “S” shape during flight.
Whooping cranes may be seen during the day foraging in small groups of two to six birds in open, marshy habitats like wet, agricultural fields or river bottoms. At night, they gather in communal roosts on mudflats and often roost alongside sandhill cranes.
If you want a chance to see this elusive bird, then head to Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, outside of Jet, Oklahoma (near Alva) which is designated critical whooping crane habitat. A good spot is the Sand Creek Observation Area on the northeast side of the refuge.
Hackberry Flat, just an hour southwest of Lawton, is the best birding spot in this area, Sightings of Whoopers in the past, make this SW Oklahoma wetland area a great spot for birders.
I went to Hackberry this week and bird numbers are on the rise. There were a few cranes, although no Whoopers, ducks and shorebirds. It is also a great place to see short eared owls, a ground nesting species. They can be seen right before sunset cruising accrues the grassy areas.
Sandhill crane opener postponed at Hackberry Flat
The Sandhill crane season opening has been delayed at Hackberry Flat WMA due to the presences of a Whooping crane in the area.
Crane season was set to open yesterday, but will be delayed until personnel with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation deem that the endangered bird has moved on, and hunting can resume without worry. Biologists will monitor to make sure the bird is gone for two days before they will consider lifting the temporary closure.
On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to witness one of these majestic birds in the wild. With only about 500 left in the wild, this visitor is sure to draw attention from birders around the state.
The whooper is currently staying with a group of its smaller, grey sandhill crane cousins. But it definitely stands out in that crowd. The bright white coloring and larger size make spotting this bird easy in the crowd of sandhills.