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Whoopers and sandhills and a miraculous comeback.

"Unless you lie in wait and be careful to maintain perfect silence, you may just as well stay home." So John Jay Audubon described his efforts to observe an unusually wary bird, the whooping crane.

Wilines made the whooper a worthwhile challenge to hunt, and tender meat made it a worthwhile prey (crane soup was a Midwestern specialty). By 1923 this majectic bird, which had once ranged the skies from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico by the thousands, was presumed extinct, but in the 1940s a flock was found in northern Canada.

Herculean efforts to save this bird, North America's tallest (to 5 feet), are just coming to fruition, and this month you can see it in the wild in Colordao and Utah, on its northward migration. In California, you can see its more numerous cousin, the sandhill crane. And the spring migration offers you a close look at one of nature's more dramatic and delightful displays, the crane's courtship dance.

How foster parenting helped

By 1941, only 15 birds were left; the decline seemed irreversible. A concerted effort to save the whooping crane began in 1945, when American and Canadian wildlife services jointly formed the Cooperative Whooping Crane Project to find and protect the nesting and wintering grounds of the sole remaining flock, which migrated between Alberta and Texas. But in 1966, breeding program was established to rear the birds in captivity, then release them.

Results have been agonizingly slow. The long-lived whooping crane (more than 35 years old in captivity) doesn't breed before about age 4, and then lays only two eggs annually--of which only one usually survives. After 20 years of protection, the Alberta-Texas flock numbers 94 birds.

In 1975, a second flock was started at Idaho's Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, employing and unusual technique: one of each whooper's two eggs was taken and given to a sandhill crane, to hatch it and raise the chick as a foster parent.

There are now about 35 Grays Lake whoopers, which travel, together with some 20,000 sandhills, to winter in New Mexico's Bosque del Apache refuge.

A crane-watcher's notebook

Where you find the whooping crane, you'll often find the sandhill. Both feed on grain and are easy to spot, during migration, in grainfields in and near the refuges listed at right; bring binoculars.

The stilt-legged cranes roost in shallow marshes, standing upright. Come dawn, they move to their feeding area, commonly an open grainfield. At some areas they stay all day; at others they leave at mid-day and return at dusk to feed again. They are less cautious when hungry, and are easily seen. Viewing is best from a car--it acts as a blind.

Notice how the crane paces across the yellow, chaff-strewn fields. A graceful and powerful flier with a 5- to 8-foot wingspread, the crane, curiously, prefers to walk. Stilt-like legs and a deliberate, stately gait lend it a regal carriage. Satiny white plumage and a carmine forehead blaze make the whooper a very dressy addition to a field. The shorter sandhill (about 4 feet tall) has the same stiletto beak and burning eyes but is cloaked in slate-gray plumage.

From mid-December into late spring, cranes engage in an ancient and curious mating dance that has inspired awe wherever it has been observed. Afircan tribes have created dances mimicking those of the cranes; in Japan, the crane is revered and is often a subject for painters.

Watchers do no forget the spectacle. As the silent dance begins, the partners face: craning necks and bobbing heads, they move to an increasing tempo. With head erect and wings opened as if awaiting an embrace, each will hop about before the other, then poise expectantly. The performance ends with the male jumping over the bowed female. If you're lucky, you'll hear a courtship duet, when both dancers throw back their heads and trumpet in unison.

Where to see whoopers and sandhills

The main flock of whoopers is in the Midwest. But the newer Grays Lake flock winters in New Mexico and, February through April, flies with sandhills back to Idaho through Colorado and Utah.

Colorado. Monte Vista-Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. The 14,000-acre Monte Vista Refuge is on the Rio Grande River in south-central Colorado. Mid-February through March, you may see some 30 whoopers and 17,000 sandhills picking through barley fields here. Stop at the refuge office off State Highway 160 on El Rancho Lane near Alaamosa for tips on sighting areas. March 22 and 23, you can attend the Whooping Crane Festival in Monte Vista and join guided bird-watching tours; call (303 852-2731.

Utah. Ouray National Wildlife Refuge. Spanning 7 miles of the Green River and encompassing marsh, woodland, and sage habitats, this 11,500-acre refuge attracts many migrant birds. Whoopers and sandhills start arriving as soon as river ice breaks up--late March through April. You can also see shorebirds, herons, grebes, and ducks. The refuge is 30 miles southwest of Vernal; take U.S. Highway 40 west to State 88, then drive south 14 miles and follow signs to the refuge.

California. You'll see no whooping cranes here, but plenty of sandhills. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, Oregon, is the main nesting ground for some 3,200 greater sandhills. Along with thousands of lesser sandhills that nest in the far north, most of these overwinter (late October into March) in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.

If you go soon, you should still see sizable flocks at Merced and San Luis national wildlife refuges near Merced. Both have auto tour routes; best time to spot roosting birds is at dawn and sunset. At Merced, you can also see snow geese and Ross's geese; to get there, drive 8 miles south of Merced on State 59, then go west 6 miles on Sandy Mush Road. San Luis is off State 165 north of Los Banos. For more on those refuges, call (209) 826-3508.

And through early March, you can view the cranes from roadside at many other places. One good site: along Woodbridge Road west of Interstate 5, 17 miles north of Stockton, where the big birds roost and feed in corn stubble and pastures. For other Road and watch for cranes in the rice checkrows.
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Date:Mar 1, 1986
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