What started as a typical day for Carleton College Cowling Arboretum director Nancy Braker turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when she received a phone call from a neighbor, alerting her to the presence of Whooping Cranes in the College-owned McKnight Prairie area this past Monday.
“A pair of ‘whoopers’ were feeding in the field right across the street from McKnight,” she said. “It was stunning to see them. At five feet tall, and with snow-white plumage, the birds would be hard to miss.”
Braker was able to record the information from the color-coded leg bands the birds were wearing and reported the sighting to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium of governmental and non-profit groups that work on reintroduction efforts in the core part of their historic breeding range. The Northfield birds are likely a 3- year-old pair. “There are only around 400 birds in the wild, with less than 150 in the Midwest population. This was really an extraordinary opportunity to view these amazing animals,” added Braker.
The pair fed peacefully in the cornfield for several hours before leaving the area, according to Braker. By early afternoon they were spotted circling over campus, and then heading southwest. Birds from this introduced population were raised in central Wisconsin, and migrate to Florida.
Locally extinct from the Midwest by the 1890s, conservation groups have worked since 1999 to re-establish Whooping Cranes to a portion of their former range in the central U.S. and Canada.
“Habitat restoration programs, like the one at the Carleton Arboretum and McKnight Prairie, are part of the bigger conservation picture to encourage healthy populations of birds of all kinds,” Braker said.
Birding at the Cowling Arboretum is enjoyed at all times of the year in both forested and grassland habitat. A checklist can be found on Carleton's Cowling Arboretum website.
More information on the push to save cranes is on the International Crane Foundation website.