Biologists recently confirmed the presence of a pair of whooping cranes outside Hayesville, marking the first time the birds have been documented wintering in far-western North Carolina, reports Blue Ridge Now.
Whooping cranes are one of the rarest species in the world, with a current estimated global population between 525 to 550 individuals, which is divided into four main groups. All wild whooping cranes are part of a western population that migrates between Canada and coastal Texas and now numbers approximately 300 (to read an earlier story on the current status of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whoopers, click here).
The male and female whooping cranes spotted this month near Hayesville are part of an eastern North American flock that saw chicks raised in captivity relearn migration routes by following ultra-light aircraft, the Charlotte Observer reported.
In 1999, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, and private individuals formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) to restore a migratory flock to eastern North America. This carefully managed and heavily monitored eastern flock began with a small group of captivity-reared birds and has grown to more than 100 individuals, including the pair found in Clay County, according to Blue Ridge Now.
The Western North Carolina sighting of whooping cranes was reported through the WCEP website on December 9 by Paul Hudson of Hayesville.
Jennifer Davis, of the International Crane Foundation, joined Hudson and confirmed his sighting after finding the birds foraging in a soybean field.
“With Jennifer’s great tracking abilities and my local knowledge, we found the birds again and got to view them from a safe distance. They lifted their giant wings and displayed while calling, which echoed across the valley,” Hudson stated in a news release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “What wonderful creatures they are, and I got two chances to see them in the wild. How cool is that?”
Since the rare birds were first spotted by Hudson, at least two other people have reported seeing the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
The cranes are a male/female pair, and biologists anticipate they’ll mate when they return north in the spring, noted Blue Ridge Now.
“It’ll be fascinating to see if these birds remain in Western North Carolina,” said Billy Brooks, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist who has spent years working with whooping cranes. “There are a lot of factors that play into that—not only human disturbance, but also whether the habitat has what they need to over-winter.”
Like all members of the 100-bird eastern flock, the cranes wear identifying leg bands. Whether the pair stays in North Carolina will depend on their finding suitable habitat and solitude, biologists said. Any eager birdwatchers should stay at least 600 feet away and remain concealed from the birds, experts said.”There are definitely concerns about people getting close to the birds,” Gary Peeples of the Fish and Wildlife office in Asheville said by email, the Associated Press reported.
“Any human presence that is viewed as a threat could push the birds to continue their journey.”
When young cranes of the eastern flock fly south for the first time from breeding grounds in Wisconsin, they follow older cranes, closely related sandhill cranes, or ultra-lights as far south as Florida. In later years, the birds are on their own.
The male spent last winter in southeastern Tennessee after flying south from the bird’s breeding grounds in Wisconsin. Biologists expect the North Carolina pair to mate once they fly north in the spring.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP)
Organized in 1999, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) is a group of agencies, non-profit organizations, and individuals, formed to restore a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America. There are currently 96 whooping cranes in the Eastern migratory population as a result of WCEP’s efforts.
Seventy years ago, the once-widespread species was on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Only 16 birds remained by 1941.
To report a crane sighting or learn more about the project, click here.
Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.