GREAT OUTDOORS: Food tough to come by for squirrels, birds

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge isn't easy for strangers to find. A pair of deputy sheriffs stared in perplexity when we asked, but the slow-talking, overall-clad operator of a country store put us on the right track: off Route 60 about three miles east of town.

Once on the narrow road leading into the preserve, we began seeing stately gray birds parading in twos and threes among the pastured livestock, oddly reminiscent of cattle egrets in fields along the Delaware River. These were sandhill cranes, the elegant creatures we'd come to see -- 46 inches tall, smoothly gray, with a brilliant red crown.

We didn't pause long to look, but drove on into the refuge where the signs promised a wildlife viewing area. In the small graveled parking lot that ended our trek, we heard the calls of the cranes the moment we opened the car doors: haunting, low-pitched, rolling calls, like clucking oboes if you can imagine such a thing. Quickly, we climbed the steps to a big gazebo at the top of the lot -- and we gasped.

I didn't try to count them, but there were at least a thousand sandhill cranes in sight, strolling through cornfields, flying overhead, loafing near the water of a slough below us. As many as 15,000 sandhills spend their winter at the refuge, along with a handful of the larger whooping cranes, those magnificent white birds whose numbers in the wild dwindled to a pitiful 16 in 1941. A concerted effort by U.S. and Canadian scientists and volunteers has returned the wild whooper population to 289 as of this month.

The whoopers in Tennessee are part of an ambitious endeavor to establish a new migratory flock, separate from the whoopers that winter at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Texas and breed at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada's Northwest Territories. The new flock is to parallel the travels of the Eastern population of sandhill cranes, which breed at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin and winter at Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida.

In a previous attempt to start a new whooper flock, whooper eggs were placed in wild sandhill nests in Idaho in hopes the sandhills would raise them and teach them the migration route. About 10 whoopers were successfully brought up by the sandhills, but unfortunately the whoopers have not bred. Scientists fear that the whoopers think they're sandhills, so this attempt may have failed. Another experiment involves 80 wild whoopers that were resettled in the Kissimmee Prairie of Florida -- but this flock has not been flourishing, so hopes now are pinned primarily on the planned Wisconsin-to-Florida flock.

This latest effort is a doozy -- young whooping cranes are released at Necedah in Wisconsin, cared for through the summer by silent, white-costumed humans and led on migration in October by costumed pilots in ultralight aircraft, trailed by support vehicles carrying portable pens and food. In the evenings the ultralights and cranes land to rest and dine. As you might imagine, this can become a real circus. To read the pilots' journal, go to the Web site of Operation Migration at www.operationmigration.org/index.html and click on In the Field. Circus or not, though, it's working -- in the first five years, 60 whooping cranes have learned the way from Wisconsin to Florida, and the experienced birds are now making the flight on their own.

Both of these crane species are glorious -- the whoopers, noticeably bigger than the sandhills at 52 inches tall, crisply white with black wingtips and red crowns and cheeks. The whoopers' calls are clarion-clear, like trumpets. Both cranes' calls can be heard at the Operation Migration site (above), and also at Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site: www.birds.cornell.edu/programs/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/ . For more crane history, visit www.whoopingcrane.com/index.html .

We weren't lucky enough to see any whoopers at Birchwood, but that was OK. We feasted our eyes on the urbane sandhills and found it very easy to understand why the Chinese so often include cranes in their beautiful stylized paintings. Cranes personify elegance.

Americans, too, get excited about cranes. Last year's Cherokee Indian Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Days at Birchwood drew 7,000 people, and this year's free event on Feb. 4 and 5 is expected to shatter that record. There'll be a lot of interesting activities for the visitors - but honestly, I'm happy to be missing it. The crowds of cranes were all I needed.

Calendar

The events below are public, and free unless otherwise noted. Where trip leaders are named, please contact them to confirm arrangements, get directions and let them know you're planning to attend.

n Sunday, Jan. 22 -- Winter Season at Fair Hill, half-day field trip sponsored by Cecil Bird Club. Meet at 7 a.m. at the Covered Bridge parking lot at Fair Hill Nature Center; for directions, contact the leader, Richard Donham, donhamr@zoonimternet.net.

Every Wednesday, 8:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. -- Bird walk at Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Road, Media, 610-566-9134. Leader, Tom Reeves; bird walk is free with arboretum admission; $5 for adults and teens ages 16 and 17, and $3 for youngsters ages 3 to 15. No pre-registration required; take binoculars and a bird book.

u Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at birdlady@birdlady.com.

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