Migrating whooping cranes in Indiana. Photo courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.

Editor’s note: This story appears here with permission through a content-sharing agreement with The Charlotte Observer. It originally appeared here.

Birdwatchers advised to give the first-time visitors plenty of space

By Bruce Henderson, Charlotte Observer

A pair of some of the world’s rarest birds, whooping cranes, is spending the winter in Western North Carolina for the first documented time.

The male and female are among no more than 550 of the species left in the wild. They’re part of an eastern North American flock that originated with birds raised in captivity, relearning ancient migratory routes by following ultralight aircraft.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says Paul Hudson of Hayesville, in the state’s western tip, reported the birds to a crane conservation website on Dec. 9. An International Crane Foundation tracking intern arrived to confirm the sighting, finding the birds foraging in a soybean field.

At least two other people have reported the birds since then, the wildlife service says. Like all members of the 100-bird eastern flock, the N.C. cranes wear identifying leg bands.

Seventy years ago, the once-widespread species was on the brink of extinction. Hunting and habitat loss left only 16 birds by 1941. It’s not easy for whooping cranes to hide: they stand 5 feet tall, sport snowy white plumage and have nearly eight-foot wingspans.

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 ultralights across Tennessee and Alabama into Florida. In later years, the birds are on their own.

The male found near Hayesville spent last winter in southeastern Tennessee. Western North Carolina isn’t far off the main migration corridor.

Whether the pair stays in North Carolina, biologists say, will depend on their finding suitable habitat and solitude. The birds are raised with no human contact, and biologists want to keep it that way. Experts say birdwatchers should stay at least 600 feet away and remain concealed from the birds.

“There are definitely concerns about people getting close to the birds,” Gary Peeples of the Fish and Wildlife office in Asheville said by e-mail. “Specific to this pair, it remains to be seen where they’ll winter, and any human presence that is viewed as a threat could push the birds to continue their journey.

“In that case, the birds would probably be fine, but it would be sad if we missed an opportunity to have them regularly in Western North Carolina.”

Biologists expect the pair to mate once they fly north in the spring.

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