There were tourists of sorts hanging out at Cheyenne Bottoms Monday night and Tuesday morning.
A group of nine adult whooping cranes spent the night at the refuge, taking a break on their southward trek from their Canadian breeding grounds. These were the first whoopers at the Bottoms during the 2019 migration, said Kansas Wetlands Education Center Executive Director Curtis Wolf.
“They were about a half mile from the Education Center,” said Wolf, who was the first to spot them. “You could see them from the highway.”
Whooping cranes have been protected since the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. At that time, it was estimated that only 16 existed worldwide.
But, “their populations have been growing steadily over the past decade,” Curtis said. “That’s the exciting thing.”
Now, it is estimated there are 500 just in the Central Flyway, a bird migration route that generally follows the Great Plains in the United States and Canada. This encompasses both Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, another popular stop for the birds.
“Quivira has had quite a few more than us,” Wolf said of the area in Stafford County. The first arrived Oct. 12 and there have been about 40 seen thus far.
“That’s pretty common.” Wolf said. For whatever reason, whoopers seem to prefer Quivira.
The whooping crane is the tallest bird species in North America, standing nearly five feet. Adults are pure white, with dark legs and bill, and a dark red cap and “moustache.”
In flight, the trailing edges of the outer half of the wings are black.
They do not swim nor perch in trees. Young birds, hatched the previous summer in Canada, are similar in size to the adults, but very rusty-brown in color.
“Annually each fall, central Kansas is one of the few places where it is possible to see whooping cranes,” said Barry Jones, visitor services specialist at Quivira.
Visitors may be able to view them, but occurrences are not daily, and are scattered over several weeks. One’s best chance to find them is near either dusk or dawn, and the middle of the day is typically the least likely time to view them.
Keep a minimum of one half mile distance from them, and do not approach them on foot. If they can be observed from a vehicle, remain in the vehicle.
For those wanting to catch a glimpse of a whooper, they can go to the Kansas Birding Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/KSbirds/) which reports sightings. They are also noted on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Cheyenne Bottoms website (ksoutdoors.com/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/Southwest/Cheyenne-Bottoms).
One can also check the “Whooping Crane Page” on Quivira’s website, www.fws.gov/refuge/quivira, or call the Refuge, 620-486-2393. A table of the latest whooping crane sightings can be viewed on the website.