Four of the rare birds, once almost extinct…
…have made a home on the Carolinas coast.
South Carolina’s coast for eons has been a
wintering home for thousands of migrating birds: ducks, geese, bald
eagles and even tundra swans from the Arctic.
Now, one of America’s rarest birds, the endangered whooping crane, has joined the feathered extravaganza.
whoopers first showed up in the ACE Basin, a wetlands and uplands
preserve south of Charleston, in the winter of 2004-05. That marked the
first S.C. sightings of the snowy-white birds with black wing tips
since before the Civil War.
“It was something totally unexpected,” said Jennifer Koches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Charleston.
did the cranes come from? The best guess is that a thunderstorm blew
them off course as they left Florida in the spring of 2004. Nine months
later, as they migrated south, seven birds veered east rather than
going south to Florida.
“They may have wanted to avoid the
place that had the bad thunderstorm,” said whooping crane biologist
Richard Urbanek, and thus headed for South Carolina.
However they got here, the 5-foot-tall red-crested whoopers so liked
the Lowcountry marshes that they’ve been coming back ever since. This
winter, four whoopers spend their days foraging for crawfish, crabs and
aquatic plants in the 350,000-acre basin where the Ashepoo, Combahee
and Edisto rivers flow into the Atlantic.
cranes almost went extinct because of hunting and habitat destruction.
Their numbers plummeted to 16 in 1941, all in a tiny Western flock that
summered in Canada and wintered in Texas.
The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service began breeding the cranes in captivity. With
abundant captive birds, the agency in 2001 set out to reintroduce
migratory whoopers to the East with a Wisconsin-to-Florida flock. The
cranes would summer in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin
and winter in Chassahowitzka refuge in Florida.
captive-raised cranes from the Western flock lack the instinctive road
map to navigate the East. So, pilots flying ultralight aircraft led the
first group of yearling birds to Florida. Once they learned the aerial
highway, the cranes migrated on their own.
historically wintered along the Carolinas coast. The last whooper
sighting in South Carolina occurred on the Waccamaw River about 1850.
That is, until the wayward Class of 2003 came along. They, too, were led by ultralight aircraft to Florida.
In early 2004, the cranes split into two groups to head north. Urbanek,
the biologist, said one group hit strong westerly winds. Off course,
three birds spent the winter near New Bern in Eastern North Carolina.
A thunderstorm scattered the other group. The following fall, seven birds spurned Florida for the ACE Basin.
Of the seven, two males, known as 10-03 and I, have returned each year.
They’ve found mates and brought them as well. One of the females,
WI-06, is the only surviving wild-born crane in the East.
Urbanek said while it’s good the cranes are doing well, their
non-Florida location presents problems. When the S.C. cranes have flown
north in spring, most won’t cross Lake Michigan. So biologists must
capture them and take them back to Wisconsin. Radio transmitters allow
biologists to track the birds.
The ACE Basin could
become an avian Palm Beach for cranes. “If the Eastern population
continues to grow, you’ll continue to get more whooping cranes in your
area,” said Tom Stehn, recovery coordinator for the species. “If the
birds start reproducing, they will bring their offspring to the ACE
The target population for the Eastern migratory population is 100-125 birds with 25 nesting pairs that produce young.
For birders eager to see the ACE Basin cranes, Koches said the chances
are small. Their foraging and roosting areas have been closed to the
public. Those who see whoopers are asked to stay 600 feet away to avoid
disturbing the birds, which could cause them to flush and burn up
energy reserves they may need to wing their way back north.