12/23/11 — Whooping cranes nesting in western NC

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Whooping cranes nesting in western NC

By The Associated Press
Published in Sports on December 23, 2011 1:48 PM

CHARLOTTE -- A pair of extremely rare birds is spending the winter in western North Carolina for the first time on record.

The male and female whooping cranes spotted this month near Hayesville, in far-western North Carolina, are among no more than 550 of the species left in the wild, the Charlotte Observer reported Wednesday (http://bit.ly/sczGKy). They're part of an eastern North American flock that saw chicks raised in captivity relearn migration routes by following ultralight aircraft.

Since the rare birds were first spotted in North Carolina, at least two other people have reported the birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Like all members of the 100-bird eastern flock, the cranes wear identifying leg bands.

Whether the pair stays in North Carolina will depend on their finding suitable habitat and solitude, biologists said. Any eager birdwatchers should stay at least 600 feet away and remain concealed from the birds, experts said.

"There are definitely concerns about people getting close to the birds," Gary Peeples of the Fish and Wildlife office in Asheville said by email. "Any human presence that is viewed as a threat could push the birds to continue their journey."

Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall, sport snowy white plumage and have nearly eight-foot wingspans. Seventy years ago, the once-widespread species was on the brink of extinction as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Only 16 birds remained by 1941.

When young cranes of the eastern flock fly south for the first time from breeding grounds in Wisconsin, they follow older cranes, closely related sandhill cranes or ultralights as far south as Florida. In later years, the birds are on their own.

The male spent last winter in southeastern Tennessee after flying south from the bird's breeding grounds in Wisconsin.

Biologists expect the North Carolina pair to mate once they fly north in the spring.