First posted on 11-02-2009
One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane, is currently migrating through Oklahoma and may be spotted during the next several weeks. The migrating population, which is less than 270 birds, will pass through the central one-third of the state between now and the first week of November, according to Mark Howery, wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“The population size is remarkable, especially considering there were no more than 15 whooping cranes left in 1941,” Howery said.
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.
“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.”
You can report sightings to the Department’s Wildlife Diversity Program at (405) 522-3087. Reports should 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.
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.
A few distinguishing characteristics 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.
Perhaps the most reliable place in Oklahoma to see a whooping crane is at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, which is designated critical whooping crane habitat. One other area that is reliable to view the bird is Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area in Tillman County.
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