Bird sightings a source of hope

Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 12:35 a.m.
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Cecelia Lockwood was unsure if this bird was a whooping crane when she first spotted it Jan. 3. "I just saw a white bird that was bigger than the others," Lockwood said. "So I started taking pictures." Later, her birdwatcher friends confirmed that the bird in her photos was a rare whooping crane.

Special to The Sun
Gainesville received several rare visitors this week when whooping cranes were seen in Paynes Prairie and in a UF cow field - a hopeful sign that the endangered birds are edging back from the brink of extinction.
Local birdwatchers were abuzz when one of the graceful, 5-foot-tall white birds was seen Jan. 3 at the UF Animal Science fields on SW 23rd Street. On Thursday, two more were spotted in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, the protected wetlands south of Gainesville, a favorite roosting spot for sandhill cranes, the whooping cranes' more plentiful cousins. And Sunday, one whooping crane was again sighted at the Animal Science fields.
"I just saw a white bird that was bigger than the others," said Cecelia Lockwood, who works at Williams Elementary School and first spotted the crane Jan. 3. "So I started taking pictures."
Later, Lockwood's birdwatcher friends identified the bird in her photos as a rare whooping crane, and biologists were able to pin down his exact identity based on the ID band on his leg (it is a 3-year-old male from Wisconsin, with a broken radio tracker).
Five days later, another sighting, this time of two whooping cranes, further surprised the local birding community.
Jean Williams, from Niceville, was hiking through Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park when she heard a distinctive, piercing call - for which the whooping cranes, or "whoopers," are named - ring out over the broken babbling of the sandhill cranes. So she raised her binoculars.
"I just got a brief glimpse of them," said Williams, though she said she was positive they were whoopers.
By Sunday, one of the birds seemed to have taken up temporary residence in the Animal Science field. Birder Ed Bonahue, chairman of the humanities and foreign languages department at Santa Fe Community College, spied the whooper while pushing a stroller down 23rd Street with his wife, Tina, and immediately rushed home for his binoculars.
He soon was joined by a steady stream of passers-by who paused to gawk at the rare bird.
"It's amazing how many birders there are in Gainesville who are interested in this kind of thing," he said.
Birdwatchers and biologists are still unsure whether the cranes are just visiting or are looking to make Gainesville their home, for all or part of the year.
Paynes Prairie, which already hosts thousands of sandhill cranes, also could be ideal for their endangered cousins.
Steve Nesbitt, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who monitors Florida's whooping cranes, said that as the birds settle in, they will wander the state in search of the best habitats.
Or, as local birder John Hintermister put it: "The oldest birds out right now are 5 years old. Cranes live to be 50 years old. So they're teenagers, and you know what teenagers are like."
The sightings are evidence of a nearly 40-year effort by conservationists to revitalize the whooping crane population, which had disappeared from Florida by the 1940s when the nationwide population dwindled to just 22 birds.
As part of the Endangered Species Act, which protects the whooping cranes, federal and state agencies and private environmental groups drafted a plan to get the whoopers off the endangered species list.
Florida's current cranes were born in captivity in Laurel, Md., at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where caregivers dress in crane costumes and remain silent to keep the whoopers from forming an attachment to humans.
From there, some are sent to Wisconsin and trained to migrate, while others are released south of Orlando to live in Florida year-round.
Biologists eventually hope to establish several distinct, self-sustaining populations of cranes so no one disaster can wipe them out. Until recently, there was only one group of wild cranes, which spent its winters in Texas.
"One hurricane, one case of botulism would wipe them out," Hintermister said. "That's the reason behind it - that's the reason why we have whooping cranes here now. All the eggs won't be in the Texas basket."
Because they are slow to reproduce, the cranes could take decades to regain something close to their former population. But Nesbitt is optimistic that in a few years, Florida alone will be home to several hundred birds.
"Let's face it, it's cost a lot of time and money and energy and people have worked on it pretty hard," he said. "But it's been successful."

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