Four of the rare birds, once almost extinct…
…have made a home on the Carolinas coast.
By Jack Horan
Special to the Observer
Posted: Sunday, Jan. 25, 2009
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.
The 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.
Where 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.
Whooping 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.
But 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.
Cranes 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 Basin.”
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.