Tuesday, December 21, 2004
On this day:

Big Whoop

Last Saturday, Bob and Martha Sargent spotted the first whooping cranes to be documented in Alabama since 1899. The birds were seen in the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Belle Mina in Limestone County (about 20 or so miles west of Huntsville).

According to the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, the birds were almost extinct 60 years ago. About 275 exist today in the wild, and a nonmigrating flock of about 100 birds lives in central Florida near Kissimmee. A small wild population lives in northern Canada and migrates each year to Texas.

The birds are named for their loud, distinctive calls and live in wetland areas where they forage for aquatic plants and small animals. Reintroduction efforts the last four years to help build the population in its traditional eastern range have been successful. Young cranes are trained to follow an ultralight airplane from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge north of Tampa, Fla. The assisted three-month migration covers more than 1,200 miles over seven states, including Tennessee.

Sargent said a sighting of three whooping cranes Saturday afternoon near Winchester, Tenn., initially led the group in Belle Mina to think maybe it was the same trio. But those were spotted about 2 p.m., and the Sargents found their birds about 2:30 p.m.

"They couldn't have traveled that far in that time," he said. "So, we realized there were two sets of birds. We were both stunned that in our lifetime we would get to see these birds outside of Texas doing what they do naturally, and to occur in Alabama. To know as a researcher and bander, to see these banded birds and to know how critical this information is to the person doing the research, is truly wonderful."

[Dr. Milton] Harris, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has been a serious bird-watcher for about 40 years. He hunted for about 20 years, then switched from a gun to binoculars and spotting scope. He lived in Austin, Texas, for a while and frequently traveled to the Port Aransas, Texas, area to watch the cranes, whose numbers in the 1960s had dwindled to about 40 birds.

"To have it back in the United States is a biological miracle," Harris said. "There are about 200 of them in the world, and we have more 10th-graders at Huntsville High than that. We get rare birds that are blown in here that aren't endangered ... (but) to see a bird that is this close to extinction is amazing."

Martha Sargent once found a tundra swan in southeast Alabama during a meeting of the Alabama Ornithological Society. Her discovery immediately broke up the gathering as birders rushed to spot the visiting exotic.

But Saturday's find was better. "I told them I'm going to hang up my binoculars," she said, "because I can't top this."